Lard is pig fat in both its rendered and unrendered forms. Lard was commonly used in many cuisines as a cooking fat or shortening, or as a spread similar to butter. Its use in contemporary cuisine has diminished because of health concerns posed by its saturated fat content and its often negative image; however, many contemporary cooks and bakers favor it over other fats for select uses. The culinary qualities of lard vary somewhat depending on the part of the pig from which the fat was taken and how the lard was processed. Lard is still commonly used to manufacture soap.
Lard can be obtained from any part of the pig as long as there is a high concentration of fatty tissue. The highest grade of lard, known as leaf lard, is obtained from the "flare" fat deposit surrounding the kidneys and inside the loin. The next highest grade of lard is obtained from fatback, the hard fat between the back skin and flesh of the pig. The lowest grade (for purposes of rendering into lard) is obtained from the soft caul fat surrounding digestive organs, such as small intestines, though caul fat is often used directly as a wrapping for roasting lean meats or in the manufacture of pâtés.
Lard may be rendered by either of two processes, wet rendering or dry rendering. In wet rendering, pig fat is boiled in water or steamed at a high temperature and the lard, which is insoluble in water, is skimmed off of the surface of the mixture, or it is separated in an industrial centrifuge. In dry rendering, the fat is exposed to high heat in a pan or oven without the presence of water (a process similar to frying bacon). The two processes yield somewhat differing products. Wet-rendered lard has a more neutral flavor, a lighter color, and a high smoke point. Dry-rendered lard is somewhat more browned in color and flavor and has relatively lower smoke point.
Industrially-produced lard, including much of the lard sold in supermarkets, is rendered from a mixture of high and low quality fat sources from throughout the pig. It is typically hydrogenated (which produces trans fats as a by-product), and often treated with bleaching and deodorizing agents, emulsifiers, and antioxidants, such as BHT. Such treatment makes lard shelf stable. (Untreated lard must be refrigerated or frozen to prevent rancidity.)
Consumers seeking a higher-quality source of lard typically seek out artisanal producers of rendered lard, or render it themselves from leaf lard or fatback.
Lard has always been an important cooking and baking staple in cultures where pork is an important dietary item, the fat of pigs often being as valuable a product as their meat. Similarly, it is also prohibited by dietary laws that forbid the consumption of pork, such as kashrut and halal.
During the 19th century, lard was used in a similar fashion as butter in North America and many European nations. Lard was also held at the same level of popularity as butter in the early 20th century and was widely used as a substitute for butter during World War II. As a readily available by-product of modern pork production, lard had been cheaper and more flavorful than most vegetable oils, and it was common in many people's diet until the industrial revolution made vegetable oils more common and more affordable. Vegetable shortenings were developed in the early 1900s, which made it possible to use vegetable-based fats in baking and in other uses where solid fats were called for.
Toward the late 20th century, lard began to be regarded as less healthy than vegetable oils (such as olive and sunflower oil) because of its high saturated fatty acid and cholesterol content. However, despite its reputation, lard has less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, and less cholesterol than an equal amount of butter by weight. Unlike many margarines and vegetable shortenings, unhydrogenated lard contains no trans fat. Despite its similar chemical constituency and lower saturated fat content than butter, lard typically incites much consternation and disapproval from many people in the English-speaking world. This may stem from attitudes and the perceived nature of the source animal for lard, or the methods required to obtain the fat from its source. It is also based on the image of lard as a "poverty food".
Many restaurants in the western nations have eliminated the use of lard in their kitchens because of the religious and health-related dietary restrictions of many of their customers. Many industrial bakers substitute beef tallow for lard in order to compensate for the lack of mouthfeel in many baked goods and free their food products from pork-based dietary restrictions.
However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the unique culinary properties of lard became widely recognized by chefs and bakers, leading to a partial rehabilitation of this fat among "foodies". This trend has been partially driven by negative publicity about the trans fat content of the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils in vegetable shortening. Chef and food writer Rick Bayless is a prominent proponent of the virtues of lard for certain types of cooking.
It is also again becoming popular in the United Kingdom among aficionados of traditional British cuisine. This led to a "lard crisis" in early 2006 in which British demand for lard was not met due to demand by Poland and Hungary (who had recently joined the European Union) for fatty cuts of pork that had served as an important source of lard.
Lard is one of the few edible oils with a relatively high smoke point, attributable to its high saturated fatty acids content. Pure lard is especially useful for cooking since it produces little smoke when heated and has a distinct taste when combined with other foods. Many chefs and bakers deem lard a superior cooking fat or shortening because of lard's range of applications and taste.
Because of the relatively large fat crystals found in lard, it is extremely effective as a shortening in baking. Pie crusts made with lard tend to be more flaky than those made with butter. Many cooks employ both types of fat in their pastries to combine the shortening properties of lard with the flavor of butter.
Lard was once widely used in the cuisines of Europe, China, and the New World and still plays a significant role in British, Central European, Mexican, and Chinese cuisines. In British cuisine, lard is used as a traditional ingredient in mince pies and Christmas puddings, lardy cake and for frying fish and chips, as well as many other uses.
Lard generally refers to wet-rendered lard in English, which has a very mild, neutral flavor, as opposed to the more noticeably pork flavored dry rendered lard, which is also referred to as dripping or schmalz. Dripping (or "schmalz") sandwiches are still popular in several European countries - in Hungary they're known as "Zsíroskenyér" or "Zsírosdeszka", and in Germany pork fat is seasoned to make "Schmalzbrot". Similar snacks are sometimes served with beer in Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia. They are generally topped with onions, served with salt and paprika, and eaten as a side-dish with beer. All of these are commonly translated on menus as "lard" sandwiches, perhaps due to the lack of familiarity of most contemporary English native speakers with dripping. Attempts to use Hungarian "Zsir" or Polish "Smalec" in British recipes calling for lard will soon reveal the difference between the wet-rendered lard and dripping. In Taiwan, Hong Kong as well as many parts of China, lard was often consumed mixed into cooked rice along with soy sauce to make "lard rice" (豬油拌飯 or 豬油撈飯). This is less commonly served in modern times due to concerns with saturated fats.
Pigs that have been fed different diets will have lard with a significantly different fatty acid content and iodine number. Peanut-fed hogs or the acorn-fed pigs raised for Jamón ibérico therefore produce a somewhat different kind of lard compared to pigs raised in North American farms that are fed corn.