Learning to Love Lard

Sunday was a big day. I pulled the wheeled cart out of the closet and hoofed it over to Columbia Pike farm market, where I'd pick up many of my Thanksgiving dinner items. In went the turkey, the greens, broccoli, onions, sausage, apples and a new addition, a tub of lard.


Lard-crusted pecan and sweet potato pies. (Kim O'Donnel)

For years, I've been a butter-crust gal, learning from the pages of pie dough maven Rose Levy Beranbaum.

I had always been curious to try lard, but honestly, I was a bit squeamish. Those blocks sold in the supermarket looked less than appetizing, and I didn't know where else to source the stuff.

It wasn't until cooking school in Italy that I began to learn the role of lardo in Italian cooking as well as its subtle, delicate, far-from-hammy flavor. The lard of a pig feasting on apples and nuts on pasture tasted like apples and nuts, not a greasy film of diner bacon fat (or Crisco).

Recently, lard has been getting rave reviews. Farm market entrepreneur and food writer Nina Planck praises the benefits of lard in her book "Real Food," claiming that lard is healthier than canola oil and contains mostly unsaturated fat.

When I learned that Betsy and Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows Farm, were carrying lard at farm markets, I knew it was time for my pie-dough experiment. I've been out to their farm in Berryville, Va., and have seen first hand how their pigs roam freely, joyfully eating apples that fall directly from the trees. I was sold on the lard concept. Now I had to get busy.

I went back to Miz Rose and consulted her "Pie and Pastry Bible" which sometimes reads like an encyclopedia. Sure enough, there was a recipe for a lard crust. Because this was my maiden voyage, the experience was a little wobbly at first, but I quickly got the hang of it.

Beranbaum recommends making the dough in a zip-style plastic freezer bag, an idea I thought unnecessary at first, but she was right, of course. It just takes a little while to get through her languaging. Below, I navigate the fat trail.

The results: Magnificent! Unlike with a butter crust, the lard cooperated and integrated readily with the flour. Rolling it out was a breeze and there was no shrinkage after baking. The flavor was nutty, but decidedly un-porky; the texture was tender yet flaky. I was converted.

I also dabbled with pie fillings, trying my hand at sweet potato and pecan (recipes follow at bottom of page). Now that I've taken the time to roast and mash sweet potatoes and sweeten and spice them up for a pie crust, I've changed my mind. Sweet potato pie rules! It's better than pumpkin pie. It's got heft, it's free of the goop factor, it's good for breakfast.

To end the evening on a nutty note, I made a second pie with a pecan filling, a la Beranbaum, done in a tart pan. I liked how she leaves out the corn syrup, traditionally found in pecan pie filling. Instead, she substitutes golden syrup, a popular British sweetener made from evaporated sugar cane juice, which yields a less syrupy-sweet result, allowing the pecans to shine.

What are your favorite ways to make crust? Do you shun the lard as I had for so many years? And what about the pumpkin-sweet potato debate? Which team are you on? Weigh in on these very important pie matters in the comments area below.


Miracle Flaky Lard Crust
From "The Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Ingredients
1 1/3 cups plus 4 teaspoons pastry flour or all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup cold lard
¼ cup ice water
4 teaspoons cider vinegar
Whole wheat flour for rolling

Method
Place a mixing bowl in freezer to chill.

Place flour, salt and baking powder in a zip-style gallon-size freezer bag and mix together. Using a melon baller, scoop balls of the lard directly into the flour, shaking bag occasionally to distrubte and cover them with the flour. Seal bag. If room is warm and lard starts getting very soft, place bag in freezer for about 10 minutes. If it is still firm but squishable once it's all been added, using a rolling pin, roll over exterior of bag, until lard is in thin flakes. Place bag in freezer for at least 30 minutes.
Empty flour mixture into cold bowl, scraping sides of the inside of the bag. Set bag aside. Gently pour on ice water and vinegar, tossing gently with a rubber spatula to incorporate evenly. Spoon mixture back into plastic bag.

With one hand in the bag and the other on the outside, knead mixture by alternately pressing it with knuckles and heels of both hands, until mixture holds together in one piece and feels slightly stretchy when pulled.

Remove dough from bag and place it on a sheet of plastic wrap. Sprinkle both sides with whole wheat flour. Cover with plastic, flatten dough into a disc and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.

Will keep refrigerated up to 2 days; frozen, up to 3 months.

When rolling dough, you may roll directly on work surface or on plastic wrap. Sprinkle with whole wheat flour as needed to keep from sticking; don't worry, the whole wheat will not toughen dough and instead give it extra crunch.


Pecan Pie
From "The Pie and Pastry Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Note on Dough: Even though Beranbaum recommends a cream cheese pie crust, I used the above recipe with lard, and it worked beautifully. I also pre-baked the crust for about 10 minutes at 325 degrees in a 9 ½ inch tart pie with a removable bottom.

Filling Ingredients
1 ½ cups pecan halves
4 large egg yolks
1/3 cup golden syrup
½ cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup heavy cream
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Arrange pecans, top sides up, over baked crust, in concentric fashion.

Have ready a strainer suspended over a small bowl.

In a small saucepan, combine yolks, syrup, brown sugar, butter, cream and salt. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon and without letting mixture boil, until uniform in color and just begins to thicken slightly (about 160 degrees on a candy thermometer), about 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat and strain immediately into small bowl. Stir in vanilla.

Slowly pour filling over the nuts, evenly coating surface.

Bake for about 20 minutes or until filling is puffed and golden and just beginning to bubble around the edges. Filling will shimmy slightly when moved. Allow pie to cool completely on a rack, about 45 minutes, before unmolding from pan.


Southern Sweet Potato Pie
From "Giving Thanks" by Kathleen Curtin, Sandra L. Oliver and Plimoth Plantation

Filling ingredients
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1 ½ teaspoons each lemon juice and orange juice
1 ½ cups sweet potatoes (about 2 large), roasted and mashed (Note: I passed the sweet potatoes through a hand-cranked food mill for a silkier result)
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
½ cup canned evaporated milk
1 ½ teaspoons each grated lemon and orange zest (Note: I forgot to add this while baking, and the pie still came out great)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice (Note: I had none in the house and omitted without a problem)

Method
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, using a mixer, cream butter and brown sugar. Beat in honey and juices. Add sweet potatoes and eggs and beat until incorporated. Add rest of ingredients and beat until smooth.

Pour mixture into pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 325 and continue to bake for 30 minutes more, or until knife inserted in middle comes out clean.

Storage: Keep wrapped in fridge.

By Kim ODonnel |  November 20, 2006; 11:29 AM ET Desserts , Thanksgiving
Previous: An Extra Thanksgiving Helping | Next: Stuffing vs. Mashed

Comments

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I'm definitely a butter-crust kind of gal. Mom taught me how to make crust with Crisco, but it wasn't until I was out on my own that I tried substituting butter instead.

The first couple of times that I made the all-butter crust, I made the mistake of not keeping the dough chilled and the crust - though wonderfully more flavorful than the Crisco crust - was dense and tough. Finally I was cued in to keep the dough as cold as possible and as under-worked as possible, which yielded a very tender and flaky vehicle for any pie filling.

But I'm game - if I can find a local vendor for some good lard, I'll try it. And I'm going to try the sweet potato pie, too! thanks!

Posted by: erin e | November 20, 2006 1:56 PM

Nutrition facts for 100g of Lard

Nutrient name: Nutrient value:
Cholesterol 95 mg
Energy 3774 kj
Energy 902 kcal
Fatty acids,total monounsaturated
45.1 g
Fatty acids,total polyunsaturated
11.2 g
Fatty acids, total saturated
39.2 g
Selenium, Se 0.2 mcg

Total lipid 100 g
Vitamin E
alpha-tocopherol)0.6 mg
Zinc, Zn 0.11 mg

Lard is low in sodium, but high in saturated fat. Small amounts of saturated fat in the diet are not harmful. However, eating too much saturated fat can raise blood cholesterol levels. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total calories, or one-third of total fat intake.

Posted by: Ed Harris | November 20, 2006 1:57 PM

That lard recipe and technique are something! I assume one could just make it in the food processor as usual with the same success? I'd bought some lard a while back to make tamales from scratch after seeing Zarela Martinez making them with Julia in one of her old shows. Zarela also made the claim that lard actually has less saturated fat than butter, but I couldn't get my health conscious partner to give the things a try and they're too much work to make by oneself (now I understand why making tamales is a family affair, often for celebrations). Then I read Nina Planck's book and checked the ingredients on my tub o' lard and saw that it still contained partially hydrogenated oil, which of course is Nina Planck's public enemy number one of industrial fats. If I had a good source for lard--at say the Dupont Farmers Market--I might give the real lard a try again and just not tell anyone!

For my crust, I usually make a pate brisee with butter AND an egg yolk for the fat. I like that the butter can be soft instead of freezing cold (though some recipes do specify chilled butter) and that some recipes actually include "schmearing" the pastry on the counter to fully incorporate the fat into the flour I guess. A simple rest in the fridge and the dough isn't tough at all.

As for the sweet potato/pumpkin pie debate, my mom's sweet potato pie is legendary in my family and I love it! She uses many of the ingredients you list. But I'm such a dessert fan that I love to try pumpkin pie at this time of year too because we never have that at my family gatherings.

Posted by: Sean | November 20, 2006 2:18 PM

In fact, the supermarket lard is NOT good, although my mother has used it successfully for 50 years. Check out this recent Boston Globe article for on-line purveyors of non-hydrogenated lard:

http://www.boston.com/ae/food/articles/2006/07/19/going_back_to_lard_for_old_time_pies/

Posted by: Coloradan | November 20, 2006 3:03 PM

I use butter and shortening in crusts. I never know who will end up eating something I bake, so it's just easier to keep pork out of it. I'd love to give it a shot, however, if I could find it outside the grocery store in my area.

Posted by: Melissa | November 20, 2006 3:19 PM

Didn't I read this in the NY Times last week?

Posted by: Siviyo | November 20, 2006 3:32 PM

Hey Sean, I'm keen to do some more digging on lard and its nutritional highs/lows. Will keep you posted.
Siviyo: Indeed, the NYT Food section last week ran a piece by Melissa Clark, who experimented with various lard/butter ratios. Great minds think alike!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 20, 2006 3:44 PM

I got to stick with my flaky butter crust. Love it too much to give it up.

Posted by: Jbird | November 20, 2006 3:45 PM

Even with farm renderded lard there are differences. "Leaf fat" or Belly Lard" is best for baking- it is almost melted at room temperature. The other, thicker, more solid fat renders to make a lard better suited to frying, as in Mexican cooking. Do try to obtain the leaf fat(belly) lard for baking use- it is well worth the effort-even if you have to render it yourself from leaf fat.

Posted by: Paul Corsa | November 20, 2006 4:18 PM

Kim, I just wanted to say thanks for mentioning Food & Friends in your chat last week. I live alone and try to eat healthy foods, so I rarely have an excuse to do much baking (and even then I usually just do cookies). I had so much fun baking a pumpkin pie yesterday. The oven warmed my little apartment enough that I didn't even need to turn on my heat last night, and the whole place still smelled delicious this morning. I dropped off the pie with the super-friendly Food & Friends staff this morning on my way into work. Thanks for sharing this wonderful opportunity! Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by: Silver Spring | November 20, 2006 4:21 PM

Kim, this is too funny! I had a, um, lard experience this weekend too - at the Courthouse Farmer's Market, I was about to buy some sausages when I noticed to my joy that the vendor was selling lard. I exclaimed something to that effect to my long-suffering fiance, and the cashier said that there was only one container left. Then he said that it was two pounds.

I was about to give up on my hopes of ever making lardy baked goods (because how could I ever use two pounds of lard?!)when the woman behind us in line piped up and said "Lard! Oh, I've been dying to try some!"

So, long story short, we ended up each paying half and splitting the container of lard. We split it in half with an ice cream spoon and she took hers home in a plastic-lined strawberry box.

Bartering for lard! What a country.

Posted by: Sass | November 20, 2006 4:36 PM

Sass! This is doubly hilarious. When I set out to write this post this morning, my first draft included the conversation I had with Forrest Pritchard, the vendor who had just sold you the lard! He told me about all the "lard love" in Arlington that day -- and that you were splitting it in half, just as you describe, with a spoon. I feel like I know you! Enjoy, and let me know how your new purchase works out.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 20, 2006 4:41 PM

The NYT article mentioned that type of
lard they recommend is called "leaf lard."
NYT also mentioned a mail-order source
as: Dietrich's Meats, (610) 756-6344, www.dietrichsmeats.com. I believe this
source was mentioned by "Cook's
Illustrated" magazine sometimes ago.

Posted by: Roger | November 20, 2006 4:47 PM

since lard is made from a pig's stomach, you might want to kindly warn your vegan and vegetarian friends NOT to indulge if you use this for piecrust--some of the commercial piecrusts sold at this time of year, such as at Giant, contain it also. I do not eat pie of any kind because too often this ingredient is a part of it. lard from "a pig feasting on apples", please. They're not feasting, they're slaughtered so humans can devour them. I know several people who have given up pie upon learning what lard is, not to mention, this is hardly a healthful ingredient.

Posted by: Ritamae | November 20, 2006 4:49 PM

Kim, where can you find the Golden Syrup? I don't usually eat pie on Thanksgiving -- Pecan is too sweet and the texture of the pumpkin just puts me off. I'd love to try the golden syrup, if it'll mean I can actually have dessert!

On a similar note -- does your Pumpkin Tofu pie have the same texture as regular pumpkin pie?

Posted by: Golden Syrup? | November 20, 2006 5:06 PM

I made your tofu-pumpkin pie this weekend and I must confess I definitely could tell the difference! But I wonder if the kind of tofu I used made a difference -- I used the silken tofu from the box, and the texture was great, it was just a bit too tofu-y. What tofu do you reccommend? I'd like to give it another try ... Thanks!

Posted by: nicole | November 20, 2006 5:40 PM

I bought golden syrup at Whole Foods. Re: tofu pumpkin pie: I think it's just as silky and smooth and rich tasting as the dairy-egg version.
Nicole: The silken tofu I use is the one in the refrigerated section. See if that doesn't make a difference for you. Cheers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 20, 2006 5:57 PM

I love lard crusts. Also it makes great ginger snaps. Of course it's not very healthy-- there is no healthy pie crust.

On a similar note, for chicken or turkey pot pies (as in leftovers!), use as much rendered turkey or chicken fat as you can in the crust. You may have to stretch it out with butter-- or more lard-- but it takes the pie to a whole new dimension.

Posted by: Rebecca | November 20, 2006 6:49 PM

Last year the Post printed a recipe for cream cheese pie crust, which I loved. It was simple to make and delish. Unfortunately, I've lost the recipe; any chance you can dig it up. Thanks.

Posted by: Susan | November 20, 2006 6:56 PM

Good leaf lard is rendered from the fat from around the kidneys. You can render any pork fat, but the leaf lard is the epicure's choice. My in-laws had several pigs butchered years ago and gave us pork and some leaf lard. The pie crusts I made from the lard were incredible - easy to roll out very thin, flaky, and light when baked. These days, with watching cholesterol and all, I use vegetable shortening. We seldom eat the any crust anymore (although, if you're going to eat the crust, might as well enjoy the leaf lard variety), but love both pumpkin and sweet potato pie. If you don't like the texture of fresh pie pumpkin, try putting it through a ricer and then putting in in a blender. That tends to eliminate the stringiness that many people dislike.

Posted by: Lynee | November 20, 2006 8:45 PM

My friend forwarded this article to me because she knows how much I love lard. I am from Minnesota and we love it out here in the Midwest. My Grandma only used lard in her pies when I was growing up. In fact, I didn't even know you made pie crust with anything else until I grew up and started reading cookbooks.

When I have tried making a pastry crust with butter it has only resulted in dismal failures. In many Midwestern church cookbooks there are recipes for "No fail crusts" that means in addition to the lard you add vinegar and an egg yolk. Works
like a charm.

Thanks for a great article.

Posted by: Lardlover from Minnesota | November 20, 2006 9:47 PM

Wow, small world! To make it even weirder, before we got to the market I was saying to my fiance, "I think Kim O'Donnell shops here! Maybe we'll catch a glimpse of her!"

I made a pumpkin pie using the crust and filling recipes from the Best Recipe (ATK)cookbook. I subbed equal amounts of lard for the butter and shortening called for in the recipe.

The crust was lovely to make; I chilled the lard and sort of shaved pieces off rather than chopping into tiny squares as I normally do with butter. It pulled right together and rolled beautifully without sticking to anything - I rolled it between two pieces of lightly floured saran wrap.

Once baked, it was flaky but also slightly crumbly (I later realized that Alton Brown says you should use 20-25% less lard than other kinds of fat), with something approaching a shortbread texture. Next time I will use less lard and see what that does.

As for flavor - the scent of the raw lard did have a definite smoky/salty/hammy component (perhaps from being stored near other pork products?), but that disappeared after it was cooked. The flavor was nutty, almost sweet, and had a sort of creamy milkfat mouthfeel - I ate a little bit raw just to see what it was like! It was definitely an animal flavor rather than a vegetal one, although I'm not sure what chemical reactions made that so obvious. It also melded beautifully with the little bit of sugar in the crust.

Hopefully this will convince the Crisco Brigade that usually makes the Thanksgiving pies for my family.

Posted by: Sass | November 21, 2006 12:25 PM

Re: the tofu pumpkin pie- I find that the texture is great when you use the refrigerated silken tofu. The only issue I've had is that it doesn't come out as sweet as I like. I use raw sugar, could this be the problem? It seems to me that raw sugar isn't nearly as sweet pound for pound. Should I use white sugar, or more raw, or maybe toss in 1/4 cup of brown? Otherwise, this is one of my new favorite recipes! My tofu-hating fiance devoured the pie and had no clue. Thanks!

Posted by: tofu pumpkin pie | November 21, 2006 12:55 PM

I'm all for culinary freedom, but please warn all your friends that your pies are made with lard. (Just when we vegs thought dessert was a safe zone...)

Posted by: Yowza | November 21, 2006 1:31 PM

Susan - there is a cream cheese pie crust posted in this chat: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2006/10/11/DI2006101101322.html

Posted by: Pat | November 21, 2006 1:37 PM

Yowza, I completely agree with full pie disclosure. Thanks for your comments.
Pat, thanks for digging up that link to the cream cheese crust.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | November 21, 2006 1:58 PM

At the urging of my husband, I spent a year experimenting with different pie crust recipes, altering ingredients and amounts, finally settling on a combination of 70% leaf lard and 30% butter. We mail order the leaf lard from Dietrich's and get enough to last through apple pie season and then some. The pies please my sweetie and he is tickled to share them with others. Only hard part is keeping a ready supply of pie tins in the house as they rarely, if ever, make it back to my kitchen. As there doesn't seem to be the abundance of pie bakers that there was in my grandmother's day, I'd love to know just where those tins end up. New ones are getting kind of pricey; $7 retail the last time I looked. When I find a neat stack of them at the local thrift store for 10 cents a piece, it's a great day!

Posted by: Kate | November 21, 2006 11:02 PM

Hi Kim,

First of all, I missed the online cooking discussion today (11/28) but still wanted to share my Thanksgiving success this year versus last year. Last year we had 18 people, two 12 pound turkeys, too many prepared appetizers, too much preparation the day of, and a lot of leftover turkey. While I enjoyed last year immensely as it was my first time cooking for my entire extended family and everyone loved it, this year I was determined to be a more relaxed host. We had just seven people, I made fewer and less elaborate appetizers, and I cooked many things ahead and took Wed. off to prep as much as I could so everything else would be ready to go on Thursday with minimal effort. Plus I had more hands to do things like peel potatoes, arrange flowers, set the table, etc. The whole experience was an absolute pleasure and a triumph, especially for me to have LIMITED what I wanted to cook. It reminded me once again that the guests have no idea what doesn't get done. As long as the house is clean and enough food is put in front of them, people will be more than satisfied. I made some delicious turkey pot pies with the leftovers and have frozen the carcass for the next time I want to make stock.

Second, I found a source for the lard at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market. It's 4.95 for a quart (smallest size) which has to be kept frozen and then you just scrape out what you need. My super health conscious partner is still resistant to the idea of eating lard and I don't make enough pies to justify buying a whole quart, but I'm still considering it. As I told my partner, lard is becoming the new extra virgin olive oil in that so many people are extolling it qualities.

Posted by: Sean | November 28, 2006 4:30 PM

My mother rendered her own lard. I used some once to make peanut butter cookies that, altho' the greasiest things you ever saw, were also the most delicious, tender, melt in your mouth cookies. I took some to school for the teacher's lounge and by the time I had walked the two blocks, the paperbag was completely greased through. It may have made the cookies a little healthier. The teachers thought they were "heaven" until I gave them the recipe. My art teacher still thought they were great, and laughed half the day long thinking about the reactions on the other teacher's faces when they were told of the secret ingredient.

Posted by: Elyginger | November 30, 2006 1:19 PM

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