Last week, I picked up a half share of pig, all neatly cut and packaged. (Giving thanks for our beleaguered small-scale meat processing plants.) But I forgot to ask the butcher to reserve the pig fat, including the smooth back fat and the lumpy leaf lard.
In the average hog, about 16 percent of the total yield is fat. From a heritage pig like the one I bought from Amaranta Farm, the ratio of fat to lean is even higher. So it’s worth claiming your share if you buy directly from a pork producer. This is one of joys of whole animal eating, learning to use, and perhaps to love, all the cuts.
Lard is simply all this fat melted down and strained and preserved. (Find a pictorial tutorial on rendering lard here). Lard is fat, pure and simple. And there are lots of reasons to love cooking with lard–again.
In my chest freezer I discovered a stash. It was portioned and wrapped, ready for use, a treasure I’d hardly remembered rendering and storing from a previous year’s pig. It was high time to put it to use for the holidays. I defrosted and unwrapped one of the bundles. It was off-white, silken smooth and smelling ever so faintly of frying bacon.
I started with a batch of tamales for a cocktail party. I used a tablespoon to flavor the olive oil in a batch of minestrone soup. I made biscuits (following the principles I learned here) and pie crust (find my favorite recipe here).
And then I made biscuits again.
What I discovered about making biscuits is that butter is good but lard is better.
For one thing, working the fat into the flour is much easier. Using my hands to make the dough, I picked up handfuls of flour and rubbed my thumb back and forth over my fingers to break up the fat to the size of small marbles. As the lard cooperated so much better than butter, I didn’t have to work the dough as much. Once mixed with the liquid, the dough was smoother and easier to handle, so again, I gentled it into shape, which makes for the most tender biscuits.
And I swear it was the lard that made these the flakiest, most silken biscuits I’ve ever produced. The fact that they had a mysterious savory flavor only added to their homespun charm.
[And by the way, in case you need another reason to try this recipe, the rubbing technique I’ve described is great practice for learning how to make pie dough. It’s one I learned from Marion Cunningham as described to Jeffrey Steingarten in The Man Who Ate Everything.]
So yes, this incredibly tasty, abundant and useful fat is back for keeps in the kitchen. Use it wisely.
Very Tender Biscuits, with or without Lard
2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (4 ounces) cold lard or butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup cold milk (not nonfat)
1/4 cup plain yogurt (not nonfat)
3 tablespoons melted butter
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
- Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Drop the cubes of lard around the bowl. Using your hands, rub the pieces of large with handfuls of flour to make small marble sized pieces and flatten them. Drop those pieces into the bowl and continue picking up handfuls of lard and flour until the lard is in ragged small pieces. If you pick up a handful of flour and squeeze, it will mostly stick together. This flattening technique makes the flakiest biscuits.
- Add the milk and the yogurt and use a fork to blend the liquid ingredients into the dry. Work with light strokes, turning the bowl. Stir until the flour is nearly all incorporated. Turn the contents of the bowl on the countertop. Use your hands, lightly dusted, with flour to collect the dough into a cohesive piece. With a light touch, pat the dough into a rough round about 1 1/2 inches thick.
- Use a can or a biscuit cutter (sharp edges make the tallest biscuits), cut the dough into rounds and place on an ungreased baking sheet. Collect the remaining dough gently and cut out more rounds, repeating until all the dough is used. (Your last biscuit might be a little taster for the baker.)
- Use a pastry brush to glaze the tops with butter. Be generous and use it all.
- Bake the biscuits until lightly golden brown, 14-16 minutes.