Startled by news about the dangers of trans fats, writer Pete Wells happily contemplates the return of good old-fashioned lard.
When I turn to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, I more or less know what I'll find. Paul Krugman will be preaching to the choir and David Brooks will be gamely hiding the strain of being the conservative that liberals can almost imagine having lunch with. On very special days, the paper may issue some rumblings about the UN's Oil-for-Food affair. The last thing I expect to see is an engraved invitation to eat french fries and fried chicken, yet that is roughly what I got one day last summer.
Extending this astonishing offer was the food writer Corby Kummer. In response to the news that New York City's health commissioner had asked local restaurants to stop using cooking oils containing trans fats, comparing them to such hazards as lead and asbestos, Kummer proposed that we bring back lard, "the great misunderstood fat." Lard, he cheerfully reported, contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter). Its level of monounsaturated fat (the "good" fat) is "a very respectable 45 percent," he noted, "double butter's paltry 23 or so percent." Kummer hinted that if I wanted to appreciate the virtues of this health food, I needed to fry shoestring potatoes or a chicken drumstick.
What did I know about lard? Bupkes. To my generation, the phrase deep fried in pure lard is shorthand for morbid obesity. Born in the '60s and raised in New England, I had consumed as much lard as a resident of Mecca. Okay, I exaggerate. I had eaten a pie crust made with lard and seen the way it flaked under a fork. But I'd eaten nothing fried in lard. "It is absolutely the best for frying," says Fran McCullough, author of The Good Fat Cookbook, an impassioned defense of butter, fish oil and other natural sources of fat. "Nothing crisps food quite as well as lard. Hands down, there's no better fried chicken."
With lard circulating in polite society again, I would have to introduce myself and get acquainted. First, though, I had to find some. The one-pound brick of lard in my corner bodega was hydrogenated, as was the 40-ounce tub my favorite butcher carries, along with nearly all the commercial lard available in this country. During hydrogenation, fat molecules are pelted by hydrogen until their chemical structures change. Hydrogenation can make liquid fats solid at room temperature (that's how we get Crisco) and gives lard extra stability so it won't go rancid as quickly. Unfortunately, hydrogenation is also the source of unwholesome trans fats, which shoot extra LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) into your arteries while batting away the other, good cholesterol. If I wanted the freshest, purest, most nutritious lard available, I'd have to make it myself.
Good lard starts with good pork fat, and plenty of it. Old recipe books tell you that the fat on a hog's back grows thicker than an inch, but modern pigs are bred to be as slim as greyhounds, and compiling enough of their back fat to fry a batch of chicken would mean stopping at every butcher in Brooklyn. The pigs I needed were premodern. At last, I talked with two young farmers who raise venerable breeds like Tamworths on the rolling pastures of Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York. These enterprising hog merchants, Jennifer Small and Michael Yezzi, agreed to hook me up.
For five long days, I waited for my fat. On the sixth, a huge cardboard box arrived. I tore it open and stared in awe. Inside were four massive hunks, each the size of a dictionary. They were lumpy, with the barely noticeable pink color of a cooked rabbit loin. Together, they added up to 10 pounds of the finest pig fat, and it all belonged to me.
Rendering is how we extract cooking fat from the chunky solid stuff. (The grease in a pan of bacon is rendered bacon fat.) Heat melts the fat and draws it out of the surrounding tissue; it also evaporates the water in the fat. You can't just crank up the gas, though, or the fat will scorch. To speed up this low-temperature process, I sliced my fat into big chunks and ran them through an electric meat grinder. What came out looked like spaghetti on steroids. Even with the flame set at a quiet flicker, the spaghetti strands quickly melted. Then, for the next two hours, the pot bubbled away as the kitchen filled with the aroma of roast pork. When the bubbling became sluggish, I strained my brand-new lard through cheesecloth and let it cool on the counter. The solid crunchy bits caught in the filter are cracklings. They are famously delicious in corn bread, but I've been too busy eating meals that were deep fried in pure lard to mess with cracklings.
Now I asked my wife which foods she was most keen to drench in our half-gallon of homemade lard. Her shocking answer was "None." I feared for a minute that she was not the same girl I married, until she explained: Since she and lard had no history together, she simply didn't know what to hope for. At that moment, I knew that more was riding on my experiments than my own idle curiosity. I had an obligation to millions of Americans in my age group. Every generation has a defining moment, a time when it turns squarely to meet its fate. For Winston Churchill and his peers, that moment was the second world war. Vietnam molded the baby boomers. I believe my generation's destiny is inextricably bound to animal fat. As children, our fragile bones were nourished by Crisco and margarine. We were all, as Gertrude Stein would have said if she'd stuck around, a lardless generation. Now lard was back. Would we have the strength of character to meet it on its own terms? To find out, I invited two friends over for a fried-food adventure. One had lived in Central America, the other in Poland—yet neither had ever tasted homemade lard.
A half-gallon of lard doesn't go as far as you'd think. About a quart went into my largest cast-iron skillet to meet the cut-up components of two young chickens. Once fried to a beguiling amber, the birds perched on a brown paper bag from Bloomingdale's while I spooned lumps of hush-puppy batter (cornmeal, flour, egg, buttermilk) into the lard, which was poultry-scented now. Sixteen hush puppies later, I had about two cups of lard left. Somewhere I have read that the ideal temperature for deep frying is between 350 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit—so high, in other words, that the food has almost no time to soak up the fat before it's fully cooked. Judging by how much lard was missing, I had fallen short of the ideal by at least a hundred degrees.
Next I cooked beer-battered scrod in a pint or so of virgin lard. (It is whispered that in some Southern towns, far off the main highways, weekend-night fish fries still center on vats of roiling hog grease.) Hardly any fat remained for my french fries. This is how I broke another sacred precept in the Fryer's Code: I overloaded my oil. Authorities concur that french fry perfection is achieved through a double baptism in fat. A first immersion over medium heat cooks the potato, then a second, roaring-hot bath browns and crisps the exterior. Where I went wrong was the roaring-hot part. I split my potatoes into two batches for the first dunking, but then I threw the whole mess in together for the final rinse. The thermometer sank gloomily and so did my spirits. Why did I sabotage the whole recipe in one reckless move? I was hungry, that's why. Hungry for the taste of lard.
Except there was no taste. From my experience with bacon grease and some memorably fatty Flying Pigs Farm loin roasts, I had the idea that anything fried in lard would take on a sweet, rich, porky essence. Yet my friends and I agreed that our food bore no trace of pig. The chicken tasted exactly like chicken and the scrod just like scrod (whatever scrod is; I've never been sure). We might have wondered why I had bothered if we hadn't been completely entranced by something else: the texture.
We'd thought lard would encase and entomb food—maybe because at room temperature it looks like face cream—but it is a fat of rare finesse. Extra-virgin olive oil is more versatile—hog-fat vinaigrette probably won't be coming to a trattoria near you—yet I generally find it too assertive for frying. ("Pure" olive oil has a more neutral flavor and is cheaper, too.) Corn and soybean oils (these days, most bottles marked "vegetable oil" contain soy) perform well at the higher temperatures used for frying, but they also leave an unpleasant tacky residue in the mouth, like wet paint. Not lard. At 350 degrees it forms a crust that shatters with satisfying ease; my disastrous french fries came out like potato sticks, but they were potato sticks that met your teeth with a memorable snap. After hanging out in your mouth for a minute, though, a lard-fried crust becomes soft and creamy, as voluptuous as a Rubens nude but not as heavy. All my kitchen slipups didn't stop me from recognizing that lard is the most elegant fat I've ever met. Even the absence of pork flavor, which at first struck me as a flaw, only made lard seem more delicate and refined.
My euphoria lasted about 10 minutes. Then I wanted to hunt down the villains who'd kept me away from my beautiful lard all these years. When I find them, though, I doubt I'll have the heart for revenge. When McDonald's swore off beef tallow in 1990 and started crisping its fries in vegetable oil, plenty of decent, honest people believed lives would be spared. But the oil they were using was partially hydrogenated. Now there's a crusade against trans fats; the company is under pressure to switch to nonhydrogenated oil. Animal fat has been around a lot longer than the FDA. Why were we so quick to toss lard overboard?
As I sent my friends home bathed in the warm glow of hog grease, I felt sure that our generation would pass the test of lard. We might not cook with it every night—natural lard is expensive and (all right, I'll admit it) deep-fried foods are often loaded with calories, no matter which fat you use. But we won't live in fear of it, either. When we want deep-fried excellence, we'll reach for the best fat for the job: lard.