Lard is still a thing
I guess this surprised me. I had always figured lard for one of those ingredients that just ceased to exist (at least in this country) after the government and the food manufacturers decided that it was ‘unhealthy’ and replaced it with processed vegetable by-products. (That sounded SO 1984.) I have a vague recollection of ancient cookbooks with recipes for things like ‘mince,’ or maybe Laura Ingalls Wilder books.
Then I decided to try making my own flour tortillas. (I had tried making corn tortillas before, using masa, but it failed miserably.) I found a recipe at this blog and figured it would be worth a shot. The recipe calls for shortening, lard, butter or oil, but the lard seemed the most authentic, and since I practically live in Mexico, my grocery store has boxes of lard along with every other thing you could possibly need to make any kind of Mexican food.
I was initially put off by the smell of it. It kinda sorta looks like butter or shortening, but white, and a lot softer. And to me, at least after I had handled it a while, it gave off an overpowering smell of roasting turkey. I don’t MIND the smell of roasting turkey, but having it emanate from a little box of white goo was a little disconcerting.
The lard handled well enough; it blended easily into the tortilla dough, and the tortillas cooked up fine. They came out very thick, almost more of a flat bread. I thought I had rolled them as thin as I possibly could, but maybe they could take a little bit more.
My husband said they they tasted fine, but all I could taste was the roasting-turkey smell. It was very weird.
So then I had ten tortillas, and a mostly-full box of weird white stuff, so I did what I do when I’m not sure what to do: go on the Internet! (What did I do before it? I can’t imagine.) All I really wanted was to find out how to store lard, but I found out that is more easily asked than answered. Well, it would be easy enough to just answer it, but most people who know anything about lard have strong opinions on several other things, and you have to wade through rants about extreme low-carbing, the Man trying to kill us with whole grains, rendering, butchering, and more images of dead animals than most Americans will see in a year.
The most important thing I found out is that the lard I bought in the little box from the grocery store is going to kill us. Yes, having consumed the store-bought lard, my whole family is doomed to death by trans-fats. Or something like that. The store-bought lard has been hydrogenated (?) to make it ‘shelf-stable’ and ‘solid at room temperature,’ and as a by-product, becomes deadly for human consumption. On the other hand, they didn’t say WHEN it was going to kill us, so maybe I’ll worry about other things for now.
So the next time I need lard, I ‘have’ to make it myself. Unfortunately, this requires a big pile of raw animal fat, a huge kettle, and preferably an outdoor heat source because rendering lard reeks to high heaven. Maybe someday I’ll get to try it, but for now I’m not going to torture the hundreds of people that live within a few yards of me with the stench of butchered pig.
I did found out some interesting things, though, in between the claims that canola oil is poison and descriptions of bison butchering.
1) Lard is actually not unhealthy for you. Well, presumably in huge amounts it would be, like anything else. But, being rendered from pure animal fat, it is a relatively whole, natural food, and has several nutrients in it. This kinda makes sense given that
2) Up until several decades ago, lard was the primary source of cooking fat for most housewives. Crisco and vegetable oils didn’t exist, butter was expensive, olive oil was exotic, and it was ridiculous to waste all that perfectly good fat from the pig that you just butchered in your yard. I guarantee that my great-grandmothers used plenty of lard in their cooking, leading up to the next point:
3) ‘Grandma’s’ pie crusts and fried chicken were so amazing because they used lard in them. Lard is credited with the wonderful taste of old-fashioned fried chicken, and gave texture to light, flaky pie crusts and pastries.
4) There are multiple types of lard, depending on where from the animal the fat was taken, and how it was rendered. ‘Leaf lard’ is the highest quality, from around the kidneys of the pig. It has a distinctive flabby look that gave it its name, and it renders the purest lard with the mildest taste. Leaf lard was usually saved for pie crusts and other special dishes.
5) You make lard by chopping up animal fat and setting it over VERY low heat for several hours. Some people add a little water to it in the beginning to keep it from sticking and burning, but others keep it as pure as possible. Gradually the fat will melt, the water will evaporate, and all the little bits of meat will cook down into crunchy brown bits (cracklins, used for seasoning). You can pour off the initial, clearest fat first, for your good-quality lard, then continue cooking it down. The second pouring will be darker and more strongly flavored; most people use the second lard for frying and as a spread on bread. Most people pour it into jars and freeze it for long-term use; setting it out to thaw as needed.
On a related note, I recently made a pie crust using butter for the first time in my life. (I normally use butter-flavored shortening, which I understand is also supposed to kill me.) It had a nice taste but was almost a cracker: thin and crispy. I hesitated to use the lard, given the turkey smell, but now I’m thinking I could use half butter and half lard, which would hopefully give me the fluffiness but still have some butter taste, plus the knowledge that I could still bake if the Crisco company went under and we had to slaughter our own animals for food. If we had any animals, which we don’t. Other than the cat. Which we wouldn’t eat.