I spent an hour yesterday writing the post about New York City’s health commissioner pleading with the 20,000 or so restaurants in that city to reduce their use of trans fats. I noted that
Beef tallow, lard, and butter are perfectly good fats that have all the good cooking properties of trans fats, but are marred by all the negative publicity that was an outgrowth of the anti-fat frenzy. Restaurants can’t go back to these wonderfully good fats because the ill-informed anti-saturated fat brigade would be on their backs in a heartbeat.
My post isn’t even 12 hours old and the New York Times, the very same New York Times that inspired my post, publishes an editorial in defense of lard. Will wonders never cease?
Lard is an absolutely wonderful cooking oil. As Corby Crummer, the author of the editorial, points out:
Every baker knows that despite lard’s heavy reputation (it is pig fat, after all), nothing makes a flakier or better-tasting pie crust. Lard also makes the lightest and tastiest fried chicken: buttermilk, secret spices and ancient cast-iron skillets are all well and good, but the key to fried chicken greatness is lard.
Virtually everything trans fats can do, lard can do better, save one thing. Lard won’t keep as long without going rancid because of the unaltered polyunsaturated fat it contains. In other cooking oils, the polyunsaturated fats have been partially hydrogenated (converted to trans fats) giving them a much longer shelf life while endowing them with properties that give those who consume them a much shorter shelf life.
Lard has a fatty acid profile that is not way too different from the superstar oil of today: olive oil. Lard does have a little more saturated fat. According to the USDA nutrient database lard contains about 39% saturated fat, of which 35% is the proven cholesterol lowering stearic acid; olive oil contains 14% saturate fat, of which only 15% is stearic acid. The predominant fat in lard as it is in olive oil is monounsaturated fat. Lard checks in at a little over 45% while olive oil contains about 74% monounsaturated fat.
While everyone seems to be jumping on the monounsaturated fat bandwagon, it needs to be mentioned that monounsaturated fat does have a slight problem. It tends to go rancid over time. The mono part of monounsaturated fat means that there is one carbon to carbon double bond. Any natural (the cis configuration) carbon to carbon double bond is much less stable than carbon to hydrogen bonds. Saturated fats are extremely stable because they have no carbon to carbon double bonds, i.e., all the carbon atom are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms. Even the olive oil, beloved by all, due to its high concentration of monounsaturated fat, has this same problem.
As an aside let me tell you why I believe that even the fat phobic have embraced monounsaturated fats and dubbed them “good” fats. As everyone is more than aware, the nutritional establishment has pilloried saturated fats as demon fats, and dare I say it, as artery-clogging fats, with great vehemence for decades. At the same time these people took after saturated fats, they elevated polyunsaturated fats to the pinnacle of good fatdom. Which, of course, got us into the trans fat mess. And even when not converted to trans fats, pure, natural polyunsaturated fats have not been the health-giving panacea many had hoped for. Then all the studies started to pour in showing that replacing carbohydrate with fat gave better lipid profiles and better blood sugar profiles, which put the antifat brigade in a quandary. They couldn’t possible come out for saturated fats, what with the vituperation they had spent on these fats for years. Polyunsaturated fats hadn’t worked out for them either, so all that was left was monounsaturated fats, which they jumped for like a lifeline.
Eight or nine years ago I was part of a panel of speakers at some huge meeting in Chicago (I can’t remember which meetingâ€”they have all run together in my brain). One of the other speakers, who is also lost to my memory, was an expert on the Mediterranean diet. He had lived in the Mediterranean area for years and had spent much of this time in Crete, the origin of the Mediterranean-diet-as-longevity-promoting-diet theory. While virtually all the proponents of the Mediterranean Diet uniformly advocate the use of olive oil as the main fat in the diet, this man told the audience that in his years spent in Crete and other parts of the Mediterranean he had found that virtually everyone there used lard as their primary cooking fat and harvested olives and pressed olive oil to make a living. Most of the olives and oil were exported.
Based on my travels in Italy and Sicily I tend to agree. There is more and more olive oil used in Italy now because tourists expect it. But behind the scenes most cooks at most restaurants, I would be willing to bet, use lard. MD and I were staying at an Agriturismo (sort of a combination restaurant hotel) in the Campania area of Italy a few years ago that let us go back to the bowels of the kitchen. Despite the fact that the owner of the Agriturismo owned an olive orchard (which he took us to) he and his staff did all their cooking with lard. He sold olive oil by the bottle in his restaurant and provided it on all the tables, but that’s as far as it went. The first evening there we went down to the restaurant after checking in and were assailed by a fabulous aroma. Upon investigation, we found about a half dozen capons turning on spits over a wood coal fire. Occasionally the cook would ladle something over the birds as they turned that made them kind of spark and flame for just a second. We figured it was some kind of special basting sauce to add flavor. When we asked about it, we found out it was melted lard. We had one of these capons for dinner that same evening, and I can tell you they were delicious.
Although lard is a wonderful for all kinds of cooking, it does have one problem: it’s difficult to find. You can often find it at ethnic food stores. We’ve often found it at Hispanic grocers. Don’t even think about your local natural food store because they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Even thought it is perfectly natural. If and when we ever get our website up, we’ll see if we can find a good source or maybe even stock it. Don’t wait until then, though, go out, get some lard, and give it a try. Cook with it just like you would any kind of shortening. And then eat the result. You’ll be glad you spent the effort to track it down.