Lard had a tough time in the 20th century. After hundreds of years as America’s everyday choice for frying and baking, it went completely out of fashion. Crisco arrived in 1911, helped by health reports throughout the 20th century—now mostly discredited—about the evils of animal fat. In 1928, Americans ate an annual average of 14.3 pounds of lard per person; by 2009, that fell to 1.5 pounds. But all along, a faithful few kept lard as a secret weapon for making extra-flaky, tender pie crust and biscuits, Southern fried chicken, and Mexican foods such as tamales and carnitas. Lard is the traditional cooking fat of Thailand and parts of China, Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Mexico as well as Central and South America—not to mention the American South.
We decided it was time to check out the lard market. We bought seven products, four from supermarkets and three online, to try in three blind tastings. First we substituted lard for butter in biscuits and pie crust, and then we prepared Pork Carnitas, for which the meat simmers in lard until it is meltingly tender and rich. Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers rated the results on flavor, texture, and overall appeal.
We noticed a big difference in flavor, especially in baked goods. Highly ranked lards made biscuits and pie crusts that tasted “clean, rich”; “very neutral, almost buttery”; and “lightly sweet and delicate.” On the flip side, our lower-ranked lards gave biscuits and pie crusts anywhere from a hint of porkiness to “big, savory, porky flavor.” While tasters didn’t truly mind—we ultimately recommended even the porkiest lard with reservations—tasters noted that pork flavor wasn’t always welcome. “Not what I’d choose for a fruit pie,” one wrote. In carnitas, those porky lards excelled, enhancing the rich flavor of the chunks and shreds of pork. Still, we decided that we’d prefer an all-purpose lard for both sweet and savory recipes.
Lard’s flavor is the result of several factors, from the breed and diet of the pig to where on its body the fat was located and how it was processed. To make lard, pork fat is separated from other tissue using dry heat or steam or by simmering it in water and then using a centrifuge to remove the water. According to Jennifer McClagen, author of Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient (2008), higher rendering temperatures can give lard that “roast-pork” savory taste we noticed, while lower rendering temperatures can keep its flavor neutral. Manufacturers often deodorize and refine lard to reduce scents or flavors and add preservatives to prevent rancidity, all of which contributes to a more neutral taste.
Lard had a major effect on the texture of pie crust and biscuits. Because it has a higher melting point than butter, lard remains solid longer in the oven’s heat. That allows more time for air pockets to form in dough, which translates to flakiness. Baked goods also come out extra-tender because lard lacks the water necessary to encourage gluten development: Butter can contain up to 20 percent water, while lard contains zero; it’s 100 percent fat. But tasters also noticed textural differences in baked goods made with different lard products. We’d tried to handle all the pie doughs identically, but some baked up sandy and crumbly, while others were remarkably light and flaky. Biscuits followed suit. Even fresh out of their containers, our lards varied: Higher-ranked lards were firm and creamy, while at least one lower-ranked product was much softer.
To probe these differences, we asked independent laboratories to measure melting points and analyze fatty acids. While butter melts at around 90 to 95 degrees, just under body temperature, our lards had higher melting points, ranging from 98 to 116 degrees. Our two lowest-ranked lards had the lowest melting points, which might explain why they created less-flaky baked goods if they liquefied sooner in the oven without creating the air pockets that lead to flakiness. These two lards also had the highest iodine values (a measure of the total number of double-bond fatty acids), a sign of softer fat and lower melting points. Our top-ranked lard had the lowest iodine value in the lineup, confirming that it’s a firmer fat with a higher melting point.
The range of melting temperatures also pointed to probable differences in these lards’ crystalline structures: Depending on the speed and temperature of its processing, as it cools, lard forms combinations of different types of fat crystals. Slow cooling creates lards with more beta crystals—bigger and more stable, with a higher melting point—so they yield flakier pastry. Rapidly cooled lards form more beta-prime crystals—smaller and more delicate, with a lower melting point—which can’t compete when it comes to producing flaky pastry.
We also looked at product labels. While our top-rated lard, a small-batch artisan brand, is very simply processed without hydrogenation, our favorite supermarket brand is partially hydrogenated, a process of incorporating hydrogen, which helps lard maintain a firm texture and resist oxidation. Hydrogenation would make it “creamier,” confirmed Jason Apple, professor of animal science at the University of Arkansas. “Hydrogenation changes the mouthfeel; it’s more of a firmer fat. It doesn’t melt as quick.” So even if it wasn’t a simply processed artisan lard, it behaved more like one. However, some reports link hydrogenated fats to health issues, so we were pleased that our two highest-ranked products were not made using this process.
Our top-ranked best all-around performer was made by U.S. Dreams, a small Ohio company that renders the fat from local non-GMO grain- and grass-fed pigs in small batches at a “low and slow” temperature, a process that forms more beta-style crystals and hence flakier pastry, without additional ingredients or hydrogenation. Packaged in 1-pound plastic tubs, it sells online for about $12 (plus shipping). Creamy, white, firm, and nearly odorless, this lard performed well across the board, giving us “clean”-tasting, flaky pastry; light and fluffy biscuits; and savory carnitas without off-flavors. Since you must order this lard online, we also chose a top supermarket product that is nationally available. John Morrell Snow Cap Lard costs less than $2 per pound and performed almost as well in every application.