No need to panic when you see the word “lard” in a recipe. It’s arguably better for you than vegetable oil, it’s delicious, and you can make it at home in a snap. (When was the last time you pressed your own olive oil or churned butter?) Here’s everything you need to know.
Photo: Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

Lard is the glasses-wearing ‘80s movie heroine—the one that gets contacts and a makeover—of the food world. It’s just pork fat, but it’s been used an epithet as long as there were teenagers mean enough to use it. No wonder we still sort of shiver when we see lard in a recipe.

Its recent boom in popularity has come as the FDA has cracked down on trans fats. (Homemade lard is trans-fat free.) And it’s tasty—really tasty. Its smoky, unctuous flavor is the secret ingredient in some of the best pie crusts and baked goods, and it can be used to fry eggs, baste chickens, and confit chickens or ducks.

What is it?

Lard can come from any part of the pig, but “Top Chef” finalist and chef of meat-centric New Orleans restaurants Toups’ Meatery and Toups South Isaac Toups points out, “If you were trying to render some lard out of a pork loin, you would not get a lot.” Look to the fattiest parts of the hog itself: “You’ll be better off trying to render fat from the belly, which is where we get ours from.” Same goes for fatty bacon, pork shoulders, and pork butts.

Should I buy it or make my own?

Store-bought lard from the grocery store can’t compete with high-quality lard from a butcher, which is in turn not quite as good as the stuff you’ll make at home. It’s very easy to make; the bacon that’s been sizzling away has left lard in the bottom of the pan. If you’ve been slow-cooking a pork shoulder for a while, the fat that has rendered in the bottom of the pan is lard. One tip: Toups suggests you pour that fat through a very fine strainer to remove any burned, black flecks. “Those burned bits can turn your lard.” Store it tightly sealed in the fridge or freezer, and it can keep for months.

Is it healthy?

Experts go back and forth on lard. Health-wise, it’s no olive oil, but it does boast a punch of Vitamin D, which no other fat except butter can claim (and it contains a lot more Vitamin D than butter). Lard contains about 40 percent saturated fat as opposed to butter’s 60 percent, and 45 percent monounsaturated fat. The best way to use it, as is true of most fats, is to use it in moderation!

OK, I’m sold. How do I use it?

First, don’t fill up your deep fryer. Toups cautions, “Lard has a low smoke point.” It’s a higher smoke point than olive oil or butter, but lower than veggie or safflower oil. But it can handle a 400 degree oven, and you can toss it in a sauté pan instead of butter to fry eggs or sauté veggies. Use it to baste chickens at the end of cooking to get a crackly skin. Anticipate a meaty, smoky flavor profile—it’s pig fat, after all—which is why Toups makes his cornbread with half lard, half butter. And you’ve got to try a lard pie crust—the classic use of it in baking—at least once. Toups also uses the stuff to confit whole chickens and ducks, make Cajun cracklins, and even add a little umami boom to chocolate desserts. One of his favorite dishes to make at home, though, is this dreamy sautéed bacon and vegetable dish.

Bacon-Fat Veggies

By Isaac Toups

This is a very forgiving recipe, says Toups, and cauliflower or Brussels sprouts can easily be substituted for the broccoli.

  • 6 slices thick-cut bacon
  • 1 head broccoli, cut into florets
  • 1 red onion, julienned
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cook bacon on a baking sheet until crisp. Remove bacon and roughly chop; set aside. Add vegetables to pan and carefully mix with bacon fat. Season with salt and pepper. Cook veggies until slightly charred, about 30 minutes, stirring once after about 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Add mayonnaise and vinegar while still hot, mix together, and sprinkle with bacon crumbles. Serve.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen