Learn the science behind:
Just the other day we went out for dinner to celebrate a special occasion. The weather was great, we sat outside until late in the evening. Since the restaurant had a surprise option we went for that one, of course. After some drinks were served they brought us our first appetizer: a basket with freshly baked bread and a white, lemony smelling spread. The bread was great, but we were somewhat hesitant about the spread at first, taking small tastes. It looked a bit like a large hump of fat (even though it smelled strongly like lemon). But it tasted good, so we put it on some warm bread and that tasted even better!
When they came to pick up the empty basket and empty ‘fat tray’ we asked what we’d been served. It turned out to be lard. Before this experience, we had never really had lard that tasted this good. We were also pretty unfamiliar with lard, so it’s about time to dig into lard. Lard is a fat and therefore we’ll also be looking into the science of fats a bit more.
What is lard? – A fatty history
Before the days of margarine (a pretty recent invention which only dates back to the late 19th century, thanks to Napoleon), people used to cook with the fats and oils 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 or lard.
All these fats and oils could be made by people themselves. Whereas butter could be made from the milk of a cow, lard was made from pig’s meat and can only be extracted after slaughtering and processing the pig.
How lard is made
There are several meat cuts from a pig that contain quite a bit of fat, especially from the belly region of a pig. However, this fat doesn’t always sit in easily accessible places, not all of it can be simply sliced or cut of. By boiling or steaming these fatty meat cuts though the fat can be extracted and be made into lard.
Lard used to be made at home, by boiling or steaming these fatty meat cuts. The fat would leave the meat and sit in the water. Since water and fat don’t mix well, the fat would float to the top where it can be taken out quite easily. When done well, this lard doesn’t taste like cooked pig meat, it has quite a neutral flavour.
Lard is very similar to tallow, however, tallow is made by rendering beef fat.
What is lard made of?
Lard is nothing more than the fat of a pig. Pure lard only contains fat. Fats (and oils) are made up of a group of molecules called triglycerides (read a more extensive introduction to fat). Lard is made up of a mixture of different triglycerides, as are olive oil, butter and coconut oil. It’s the type of triglycerides in a fat or oil which give it its distinctive and unique properties.
All triglycerides have the same basic structure (see image below). They have a central branch called glycerol. On each of these branches a fatty acid has been attached. A fatty acid is a long linear chain of carbon molecules and there are a lot of different fatty acids. Some fatty acids are very long, others short, some have only single bonds between the carbon atoms, whereas others contain double bonds as well. It’s these fatty acids that distinguish between the different fats and oils.
The fatty acids of lard
In the image below the most prevalent fatty acids of lard are shown. Lard contains a lot of oleic acid (45%) as well as palmitic acid. You will already notice that all these fatty acids look quite different. Palmitic acid is very straightforward, it’s a long simple chain, whereas linoleic acid is a bit more complex already.
The melting point of lard
Each fatty acid has a different melting point. Since lard (as are most fats and oils) is made up of a combination of fatty acids there is not one specific temperature at which the lard melts. Instead, there is a range of temperatures in which the lard will become softer and softer until it has melted completely.
Also, since not every lard has the exact same composition of fatty acids, not all lard will have the exact same temperatures at which this happens. Generally speaking though, the melting ranges of lard lie in between 30 – 45℃. Most lards will have clearly softened a few degrees above 30℃.
Generally speaking, the longer the fatty acids in lard, the higher the melting point. Presence of oleic acid on the other hand lowers the melting point again, this is caused by the bend in its structure.
Comparing lard with other fats & oils
Since the fatty acid chains determine the properties of lard and other fats and oils it is worthwhile to look into the composition of a few other regularly used cooking fats. You will notice that the main difference is the presence of different fatty acids. It’s what makes oil liquid at room temperature and fats solid at room temperature.
Lard vs. Butter
Before looking at the fatty acid composition of butter, one other main difference has to be pointed out. Whereas lard is virtually 100% fats, butter is not. Butter contains quite some water (around 20%) and contains some other minerals and a little bit of protein. Apart from those components though, butter is also mostly a mixture of triglycerides with a variety of fatty acids attached.
Below you can find the most prevalent the fatty acids in butter. You will notice there’s a few different fatty acids, such as myristic acid and linolenic acid which aren’t as prevalent in lard. Butter also contains somewhat less oleic acid than lard, but somewhat more palmitic acid.
Sign up to our weekly newsletter to be updated on new food science articles.
Lard vs. olive oil
Olive oil is almost 100% triglycerides, just like lard. However, the composition is again quite different. The main fatty acids are again very similar, but you will see below that there’s a lot more oleic acid in olive oil than these is in lard. As mentioned when discussing melting temperatures, oleic acid tend to decrease a melting point. This is one of the reasons that olive oil is liquid at room temperature, whereas lard is not.
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!