Recently, I admitted my unbiased love of convenience pies and traditional pies, alike. This is about a step in the traditional pie process. Whereas last week I made a pudding pie for which my effort was finished in roughly 15 minutes, this week I’m preparing to make pies all Autumn long by rendering my own lard for pastry crusts. From start to finish, it took about four hours, at a dawdling and enjoyable pace.
This is an exercise in appreciation. This is about a back to basics approach to making a pie. I hope some of you will try this because it removes a great deal of mystery about lard, fats, and the unknown but trusted things we often use in our crusts. There was a time, not so long ago, when our forbears all used lard in pastry and for all manner of cooking. Many of us believe that we have innovated ourselves right out of a wonderful ingredient.
My History with Lard
When last we spoke about rendering lard for pastry dough, I was having a pie emergency and desperately needed lard to make a VIP (very important pie) which traveled to Galveston for The 2011 Foodways Texas Symposium.
I was very busy trying to acquire a very special sort of lard called “leaf lard.” On that occasion, I settled for regular pork fat that I acquired at a local Hispanic-oriented grocery store. These stores have many more options when it comes to cuts of beef and pork. What the “hip” food world call “tip to tail” animal consumption is merely a fact with much ethnic cuisine. But, alas, even in this great store there was nothing so obscure as leaf fat. Now I have several resources for fresh rendered leaf lard, and a well stocked freezer so there will be no more pie emergencies of that nature. However, the notion of leaf lard has remained very interesting to me. And I believe that it does, in fact, make superior, flaky, lovely crusts.
For the uninitiated, leaf lard is a very particular type of lard. It is lard rendered exclusively from the “leaf fat” of a pig. It is fat that is deposited around the kidney of the animal. Why is this important? Well, this fat has a different structure than other fat, which lends itself beautifully to pastry applications.
“Because of its large crystalline structure, it works exceptionally well in biscuits and pie crusts…Lard is somewhat soft even when cold, so when making a pie dough, some of the fat coats the flour, inhibiting much of the gluten development. The remaining fat, which stays in larger flakes, melts at a slightly higher temperature than butter, keeping the layers of flour and water separate. This also allows what little water is in the dough to turn to steam and separate the layers further. This is what creates a pie crust’s flakiness. “ The King Arthur Baking Company website
And leaf lard is widely revered as the highest quality fat on a hog. So, while any freshly and correctly rendered lard will make a good pastry dough, leaf lard is said to be the best. I wish I had a better understanding of how a large crystalline structure in fresh fat translates into a quantifiable difference in the rendered lard. I need a food scientist to show me slides of rendered leaf lard and standard mixed lard under a microscope. I hate to blithely assert that leaf lard is superior to all unprocessed rendered lard. My experience has borne that out, and the ravings of more experienced pie makers than I have borne that out, but I also enjoy the pointy headed science end of things.
But the appeal of the crystalline structure is the most often noted factor. Let me quote a lovely book called fat by Jennifer McLagan,
“Also called flead or flare fat, leaf lard is the fat from around the pig’s kidneys. Ideal for making pastry because of its brittle crystalline structure, this is the crème de la crème of pork fat.” Jennifer McLagan
I have this book because I gave a windmill t-shirt to Daniel Vaughn, of Full Custom Gospel BBQ. He gifted me with this book and it is a love letter to an often maligned food, fat. It covers beef, pork and poultry fat and explains how we, as a health conscious society, moved away from animal fats and into the waiting arms of industrial and plant based fats, which she argues was to our detriment. I tend to agree.
My fascination with leaf lard pre-dates my meeting Daniel, and goes all the way back to conversations with another friend Jon Rowley, who is a champion of making pies with lard. Jon was the reason for the traveling pie mentioned earlier. While widely known as a seafood expert, particularly an oyster expert, he is also a pie baker with whom I had extensive conversations about optimal crusts. When I found out that I would be lucky enough to meet him in person at the 2011 Foodways Texas Symposium, I knew the pie about which we had talked so often needed to be in attendance, too. This pie crisis caused me to have to render my own lard, with an assist from Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan blog, for the first time. And it was fun, and it was successful. It is not rocket science. If it was, it would be Crisco. No, this is the most basic and simple of foodstuff preparations. Fat, slowly cooked, renders lard. The fat that it is rendered into is also called lard, leading to plenty of confusion. That is why I’m calling it fat before it is rendered and lard after it is rendered, but this is my convention just for the sake of clarity.
Fast forward another year. I met Daniel in person at the 2012 Foodways Texas BBQ Camp. Not surprisingly, talking about BBQ invites a lot of talk about fat. Fat is not a pejorative in the BBQ world. In fact, fat is revered for its ability to, in essence, baste meat as it renders and gelatinizes during the smoking process. It is vital. Talk about BBQ also leads to a lot of talk about pies, given that even if you have stuffed yourself to the gills with brisket, you generally are still capable of making room for pie. Daniel, I am given to believe, also bakes a mean pie.
BBQ camp is held in the Meat Sciences Department of Texas A&M in college station. Therefore, I was surrounded not only by meat experts but by the very nature of meat sciences, fat experts. Professor Jeff Savell was kind enough to field my questions about pork fat and leaf lard and in an act of utter generosity and kindness, offered to save the leaf fat from the summer slaughter for me. Bear in mind, A&M teaches very astute young men and women every aspect of meat production, grading, and safety. That means that animals are killed, and prepared as they would be at any other meat facility, but under the watchful eyes of a bunch of PhDs and graduate students (thank you, Leslie Frenzel). Meaning, I got some really great fat. A week or so ago, I found the best gift on my doorstep, a frozen delivery of pure leaf fat. Daniel will be taking half of this bounty, too.
Finally, I was able to render my own leaf lard for pies.
Being a Consumer
If it strikes you as a bit gross or déclassé to spend one’s day rendering lard, let me try to explain briefly why I jump at these opportunities. I am not a complete stickler where food is concerned. But, we as a culture have tried very hard to remove ourselves from the “unsightly” processes concerning meat, in particular. We have largely left it to others to do for us, and jumped at the glossy ads and perceived advantages of every food technology to come along. This efficiency and convenience gain has meant that, in the course of one or two generations, most of us don’t know anything about the food we eat, and we absolutely trust others to supply our most basic need.
My lard experiments, and other food adventures, have caused me to learn that lard, relative to butter and shortening, is not a “bad” source of fat. No need to recoil in horror at the word “lard” anymore. Good. Many would argue it is more suitable than other options, historically, for a human diet. But, it has caused me to eliminate about 14 processing stages from one ingredient, fat. This fat came from a hog, to a processor, to me. That is three. Shortening…well, let’s just say that its road is a bit more curvy. Admittedly, I eat some highly processed, trans-fatty, uncouth food on occasion. But, I am not a blind consumer. And, I really like having a closer connection to my food sources where pie is concerned, in particular.
Now, having personally pulled leaf fat off of the surrounding membrane, chopped it into bits all by myself, and rendered it slowly and carefully, I really know about the fat I am putting into my pie. Shortening, on the other hand, is a scientific wonder. It is made now with cottonseed oil and soybean oil. It is impressive in many ways, though not in flavor. I’m not opposed to it completely and I use it on some occasions. I even have one cookie recipe in which I often use it. But, people prefer using shortening for pies sometimes, because it produces a dough that behaves better for highly decorative purposes. Butter and lard crusts have a more rustic look about them. And, many people prefer shortening because it can be obtained readily, no matter where you live. Certain bakers like all-butter crusts, too. I understand that completely and believe that whatever gets you baking is a good thing.
But, I love the flavor and the texture of a leaf lard and butter crust. If I am going to spend hours making a beautiful pie, I will go to the trouble of selecting (or perhaps have been gifted with) glorious fruit or berries or chocolate. I am also going to buy high quality butter (can you envision churning butter as a post soon…I can). And I will make sure that I have my favorite flour which is made from American grown wheat. If I’m going to spend the time, and acquire the best ingredients, I want the leaf lard, not shortening. I just do…if I can. It is part of the aura of a home-baked pie. A pig farmer, a dairy farmer, a wheat farmer, an orchard owner, and spice growers…people, all of whom have a hand in my pie.
So, THAT is why I have enjoyed the process of learning about lard.
But that is the rub, really. It is a process. I had to go, literally, to the guy at the top of the food chain to get this fat. I could probably call around to pork farmers and find a source, but that isn’t really feasible for most people. Butcher shops don’t carry it from what I’ve seen. And frankly, there is a reason for that. Most people aren’t crazy enough (yet…I’m working on you) to want to render their own lard. I am, admittedly, odd that way.
But, if you can get leaf lard, I hope you will try it. I’m in good company in my recommendation and I wish I had keyed into it even sooner. My beloved resource for all things cooking-related, Cook’s Illustrated, has this to say in an online missive about lard:
“We found leaf lard at a local butcher and finally understood why so many readers had written to us in pretty passionate defense of lard. The pie crust made with the leaf lard was extremely tender and flaky, but what most distinguished it from pie crusts made with supermarket lard (or Crisco) was its rich, almost savory flavor.”
But let me be very clear on this point. The lard product in the chain grocery stores that is shelf stable and sold right next to the shortening and oils is NOT leaf lard. And, it is not fresh lard. It is processed lard which is definitely pork lard, but has been produced for the virtue of shelf stability, not necessarily baking. And as I understand matters, if there is a health benefit (or not a detriment relative to the consumption of plant based processed fats), it is lost in the shelf stable variety. If you don’t have to refrigerate it, don’t buy it.
[This is the fat in its natural state. The leaf fat is attached to this membrane and you have to peel it off, which leaves you with the rubbery membrane in the bottom center photo, which you discard.]
Where To Get Leaf Lard
Here are my leaf lard resources. Some I have used personally and others I suggest based on their reputations. Some do mail order and some must be purchased in person. If you know of any resources I should add to the list, please post a comment for us.
Dietrich’s Meats: This is old-school mail order. Send them a check and they send you lard. If is vacuum sealed and in nice pint containers that are great for the freezer. I have used this lard and it is wonderful.
Dai Due: In Austin, you can sign up for their mailing list and be alerted of their farmers market offerings, which often includes leaf lard. I have used this lard, and it is also wonderful. At last check, they do not do mail order, but you can find them at the local farmers markets.
Revival Market: This well regarded shop in Houston specializes in locally raised meats and and locally grown produce. “Everything is pasture raised, antibiotic free, smoked and butchered in-house.” This is one of the spots on my radar for any upcoming Houston road trip. They do not ship the lard, but if you are in the Houston area, this is a great resource. I have not used this leaf lard, but I have, on the most reliable word, heard that it is great. Adam Dorris, their Chef de Cuisine, tells me that their lard is from Mangalitsa hogs, a heritage breed, and that it has more flavor and clarity than any lard he has ever worked with.
Prather Ranch Meat Company: The retail location in the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco is wonderful. They also sell their lard at farmers markets in the SF Bay area. But this is a pick-up item for them. They do not deliver. If you stop by, be sure to pick up a “Praise the Lard” t-shirt while you are at it. I wish I had thought of that first.
Flying Pigs Farm: This is a source for unrendered leaf lard if you want to try it yourself. They ship the fat and you can render it yourself if you choose that route. I haven’t ordered from them personally but they seem to get very positive press about their products. And their other offerings sound wonderful, as well.
Rain Shadow Meats: Jon Rowley recommended this shop. They do not ship. But if you live in Seattle, this is a good resource.
Beyond these…leaf lard can be found, but you have to do some homework. Call local ranchers who sell pork. You may find that you can get very nice leaf lard from even heritage varieties of pigs. Farmers markets are a great place to check, too. And folks, this stuff is NOT expensive. The cost is in the shipping. So it is worth your while to find a local source if you can.
In addition to this method for rendering lard, I will also give you a list of resources for fresh rendered leaf lard that you can buy, in person or by mail order. That, unlike the unrendered fat, is obtainable if you prepare in advance. But, here I will also give you the oven method for rendering your own leaf lard, or other pork fat, should you want to use it for frying or making biscuits or refried beans, or any other number of applications for which an all natural fat seems appropriate to you.
Having once rendered lard on my stove top, I learned why most people in days past rendered fat outside in big kettles. Your house will smell like pork rinds if you process it on the stove. Hence, I was quite pleased to read Jennifer McLagan’s instruction to render fat slowly in the oven at a low setting. My house fared much better this time.
But all other instructions that I have run across suggest that you render it on the stove top. The earliest reference I have for leaf lard in particular is found in The White House Cookbook. This is truly a classic tome, first published in 1887. Subtitled “Cooking, Toilet and Household Recipes, Menus, Table Etiquette, Care of the Sick, Health Suggestions, Facts Worth Knowing,” it was written by Hugo Ziemann (steward of the White House) and Mrs. F.L. Gillette. My copy, a 1925 revised edition also owes recipe content to Mrs. Mary Dague, “for cookery is progressive.” Indeed. And now we have progressed from and back to the use of rendered lard. But you will see how little has changed in the method:
“Skin the leaf lard carefully, cut it into small pieces and put it into a kettle or saucepan; pour in a cupful of water to prevent burning; set it over the fire where it will melt slowly. Stir it frequently and let it simmer until nothing remains but brown scraps. Remove the scraps with a perforated skimmer, stir in a little salt to settle the fat, and, when clear, strain through a coarse cloth into jars….If it scorches, it gives it a bad flavor.” -Ziemann, Gillette & Dague
And years later Carol Field, in her IACP award winning cookbook, The Italian Baker (revised), wrote the following:
“In diet-conscious America, good lard is difficult to find….My butcher, who is usually extremely accommodating, has to sell me leaf lard in 10-pound amounts. So I have one busy afternoon rendering it and then can keep it refrigerated in small lots for months.” -Carol Field
She, likewise suggest that you simply cook it over a very low flame until it turns into transparent liquid, skim off the bits, and let it cool to room temperature.” And, suggests it be used for a number of bread doughs and gives them a “smooth, moist, creamy texture.”
I could stop there. That is really all there is to it. But it is funny that I am now “discovering” such a basic function of households past. If you ever see a copy of The White House Cookbook in a junk shop, grab it immediately. It is really a lot of fun to peruse. And, well, I am also a sucker for bread cookbooks.
Onward! Consider using your oven. It allows for a steady, low temperature. I far prefer this method and it takes far less baby-sitting. While the words differ here, I owe this methodology to Ms. McLagan, who, like Lisa Fain the last time, made it sound so very doable that I jumped right in.
6 pounds fresh leaf lard
1/3 cup water
1. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Choose a heavy stockpot large enough to hold the fat.
2. Clean the fat from the membrane to which it is attached. Leaf lard is stuck to a very durable membrane and you can peel it away with your fingers or use a very sharp knife to shave it off as you would silver skin on a roast. Use caution because your hands will be very slippery from handling the fat. Be very respectful of your knife and your hand placement.
3. When you have removed the fat, you may discard the membranes. Cut the leaf fat into small bits and place them into the stock pot with 1/3 cup of water.
4. Place the uncovered pot into the oven and allow it to cook for 30 minutes. Stir the fat thoroughly. You will notice that it is starting to glisten. Return the pot to the oven for an additional 45 minutes and, again, stir thoroughly. At this point, stir it every hour until the fat has fully rendered but before it becomes significantly golden. The darker the fat bits get, the more flavor will be imparted to the lard, which is not optimal for baking. In all, my lard cooked for 3 hours and 15 minutes. Yours may go more quickly depending on how much fat you have in the pot.
5. Remove the pot from the oven and allow it to cool a bit. Strain the liquid lard through cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. Alternatively, use a skimmer to remove the bits of fat. Pouring it through a sieve or cheese cloth will yield a cleaner pour of lard. Discard the fat bits, or put them back into the pot and place it in the oven for a while longer to render more lard, if you like. There are numerous uses for a slightly more “piggy” lard. Once you have strained the lard, ladle it into jars. Allow it to cool completely into its solid state and then put on the lids and store the lard in the refrigerator (for several weeks) or the freezer (for up to a year).
That is it. Happy Baking.
Today, I spoke to approximately 4 people about rendering lard. As in, “what have you been up to?” And I say, “Oh, just rendering lard for pie crusts.” One agreed that I had flipped my lid completely, but I’m perfectly sure that she would be on board when there is an actual pie involved. Three were completely on board. One was Daniel Vaughn (who showed up with Pecan Lodge BBQ, the dear sweet man). Another friend, who is a chef, told me that she grew up on a hog farm and her neighbor would render the lard from their pigs and share back the bounty. And one friend related to me that her Hungarian grandmother uses lard in absolutely everything, including sweets and cookies and that she loves cooking with lard. I think there is a lot of room for this tradition in our lives. And, if we start asking for leaf lard from our better butcher shops, we will be able to get it.
So I ask, would you bake with leaf lard if you could find it? And, would you rather buy it rendered, or try your hand at rendering it yourself? And, if you have any memories of your family making or using lard during your earlier life, I’d love to hear about it. Finally, if you have any sources for leaf lard, let me know and I will add them to the list.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this giant piggy stream of consciousness. Thanks for hanging in there, by the way. At over 4,000 words, this is surely one of my War & Peace posts.
Here are several other articles that are worth reading about baking with lard.