What secret ingredient makes the pie crust so crisp and flaky? If you're from the Midwest, you may have guessed: Lard. The pig fat reviled for decades as supremely unhealthy is undergoing a lipid rehabilitation by American chefs and home bakers.
Think lardo, the cured pork fat served in thin slices on bread that's served from the kitchens of trendsetting chef Mario Batali. And farmers markets increasingly sell lard rendered from heritage pigs so you can try a fancy version at home.
And a new cookbook, "Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother's Secret Ingredient", tries to make the case that the world is ready to once again enjoy lemon nut cookies and buttermilk pound cake made with lard. They even suggest it might be good for you, or at least not as bad for you as other stuff.
We know, we know: There are some cultures that have never quite given up on lard. Mexican tamales usually require it, and then there's Ukrainian salo, the Eastern European equivalent of lardo. But to many Americans it's a bit of a retro novelty — if they've even heard of it.
I was no stranger to the lard-as-dessert-ingredient concept, having been raised in a Midwestern household with a one-gallon bucket of lard in the freezer. It was a big factor in my mom's famously delicious pie crusts. And it's been harder to find in recent years. I had to call several grocery stores to find it for the pie I tested recently on the NPR science desk staff.
So it's no surprise that most of my testers were stumped when I asked them to identify the secret ingredient in a chocolate pecan pie. Only two, intern Ted Burnham and reporter Elizabeth Shogren quickly IDed the mystery lipid. Editor Alison Richards, who grew up in England where beef tallow is commonly used in desserts, praised the crust's ever-so-faint whiff of the barnyard.
OK, so we've established that lard is tasty. But is it good for you?
Even in the early 1900s, long before lard, butter, and other animal fats were implicated in heart disease, lard was lambasted for being unhealthy. When the vegetable shortening Crisco was introduced in 1911, as NPR's Dan Charles explained recently, its makers advertised it as being more digestible than lard.
Crisco and other partially hydrogenated vegetable shortenings were later found to have their own health issues, most notably trans fats, which were found to contribute as much to heart disease as saturated fats. But lard remained unrehabilitated.
Recently, however, people have been touting lard as a "healthful" animal fat. The authors of the new lard cookbook note that lard contains 40 percent saturated fat, compared to butter's 54 percent. That 14 percent difference doesn't sound like a big deal, frankly. They're both bad on saturated fat when compared to vegetable oils, which typically have less than 10 percent. I checked with some lipid experts.
Sure, lard is healthier if you compared it to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils like Crisco, according to Tong Wang, a lipid chemist and professor in the department of food sciences and human nutrition at Iowa State University. But that's not to say that lard is better than highly unsaturated omega-3 oils, like olive oil, which are considered the healthiest fats out there. "All are relative," she told The Salt in an email. "And the big question is quantity!"
If the lard is consumed as part of pork, she explained, and in moderation, then it's fine. But replacing healthy oils with lard, and eating a lot of it, would be a bad idea.
Lard partisans also note that unprocessed lard typically is made up of about 45 percent monounsaturated fats, which are considered heart healthy.
Wang is not swayed by that argument. Lard also has cholesterol, she notes, as do all animal fats. And that 45 percent fat can still be a lot, depending on how much you eat.
Add to this that lard sold in supermarkets is often hydrogenated, to make it shelf stable, and you've got a product with cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fat, too. Oh my.
But all this nutrition talk isn't enough to make me abandon lard in pie crust; it's a family tradition. But I don't think I'll be bringing back the bucket of lard in the freezer tradition any time soon.