Basics of lard & the world of fats

Just the other day we went out for dinner to celebrate a special occasion. The weather was great and we sat outside in the sun until late in the evening. We chose the surprise menu, so had no clue what we would get. The very first appetizer was a basket with freshly baked bread and a white, lemony smelling spread. We were somewhat hesitant at first, the spread looked just like pure fat (which it turned out it was, but we’ll come back to that), but it tasted great. Of course, we asked the servers what we’d been served. It turned out to be lard!

If you’re like me, you might not exactly know what lard is, or you might think greasiness and ‘uggh’. So I’ll dive into the common questions surrounding lard: what is lard, how is it made and how is it used.

Some fatty history & What is lard?

Before the days of margarine (a pretty recent invention actually, of the late 19th century, thanks to Napoleon), people used to cook with fats they could find around them. Depending on the region where you lived, you might have used (vegetable) oils, such as olive or coconut oil; or you might have used animal fats such as butter and, yes, lard.

Lard is the fat of a pig. Lard used to be made at home, from the fatty parts of pig meat. It is made by boiling or steaming fatty parts of the meat. The fat will leave the meat and sit in the water from which it can be separated quite easily. Care should be taken that the temperature is not too high and that there’s enough moisture, or else the Maillard reaction will occur, causing the fat to brown (as happens when baking bacon).

Especially the higher quality lards do not taste like pig, they have quite a neutral flavour. Also, they tend to be pretty soft (hence so suitable for eating with some bread).

The soft structure of the lard can be explained by diving into some more fatty science.

Fat science

As we’ve learned in our food chemistry basics post, fats and oil both belong to the same group of molecules, the so-called triglycerides. All triglycerides are made up of three branches of fatty acids which are attached to a central molecule: glycerol, see below. A fatty acid is a long linear chaing of carbon molecules. It’s these fatty acids that distinguish between the different fats and oils, each fat or oil has different fatty acid chains attached to its glycerol molecule.

Triglyceride with glycerol and fatty acid
A triglyceride is made up of three fatty acids (the A in the drawing represent a longer chain, this chain is different for every fatty acids) and a glycerol molecule which serves as a backbone.

How is lard different from olive oil & clarified butter?

Lard is a triglyeride, just like olive oil and clarified butter. However, it contains these different fatty acids chainds which makes it behave quite differently. In the 3 schemes below you can see the most common fatty acids for butter, olive oil and lard. You will notice that actually the differences aren’t huge, despite the fact that they look so difference!

Most prevalent fatty acids in butter. Source of percentages: Wikipedia. Numbers are averages and will vary since they are natural products.
Most prevaltent fatty acids in olive oil. Source of percentages: Wikipedia. Numbers are averages and will vary since they’re natural products.
Most prevalent fatty acids in lard. Source of percentages: Wikipedia. Numbers are averages and will vary since they’re natural products.

You can see thata the main difference between the three is the % of the presence of the different fatty acids. Butter contains a lot more palmitic acid, whereas olive oil contains more oleic acid. Nevertheless, the fatty acid composition of lard isn’t that different.

Liquid vs. Solid fats/oils

It is the difference in ratio of the various fatty acids that defines the differences between the triglycerides. There are two main characteristics of fatty acids that highly influence the appearance, mostly the melting point: the length and the presence of double vs single bonds.

  1. Length of a fatty acid chain: The longer a fatty acid chain, the higher its melting point. In other words, longer fatty acids stay solid up to higher temperatures.
  2. Double vs. single bonds: Double bonds (see the parallel lines in the drawings above) decrease the melting point. Because of these double bonds, the fats cannot lie as straight anymore. This causes the melting point to decrease.

The melting point is an important characteristic since it determines whether a fat is liquid or solid at room temperature. That makes a distinction between oils and fats, but also the way it behaves in food. For instance, olive oil will be liquid at room temperature, so it cannot be creamed like butter. Also, it cannot be used as easily for a crumbly pie crust, since it’s hard to make those fat pockets.

Based on this analysis, we can have a closer look at th differences between olive oil, butter and lard. We see that olive oil has a lot of oleic acid, it has this double bond which makes it look crooked and decreases melting point. On the other hand, butter has a lot more palmitic acid. This acid is long and straight, so gives a higher melting point. Lard again, sits kind of in between these, being softer that butter, but harder than olive oil.

How to use lard

Now that you know that lard is just another fat, let’s start using it. Lard can be used just like any other cooking fat such as butter and olive oil for frying potatoes, etc. Lard is hard to get a hold of here, so honestly, I rarely use it. On the other hand, I do tend to get some bacon which I fry a nice golden brown before adding the rest of my ingredients. The fat that is released during frying is: lard, which the same flavour and composition!

But, do give it a try, eat bread with some lard. It will probably surprise you. Especially when eaten with freshly baked bread, on a sunny terrace and when it’s mixed with some lemon and black pepper. Perfect!

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