Lard. Once upon a time it was the most common cooking fat in American kitchens. But it's been vilified for nearly a century now - bad for you, they say; causes heart disease, they say. Use shortening instead, it's made from heart-healthy vegetable oils, they say.
This is going to sound odd, coming from a guy who survived a heart attack and a five-way bypass operation but here it is: Despite its saturated fat content and the attendant bad publicity, lard isn't all that bad for you. It's actually less harmful than butter, which enjoys awesome press. And if you pay attention to labels when you buy it (or if you make your own) it's less harmful than shortening. One simply cannot make proper biscuits or pie crusts without lard, so it is important to understand how it compares to other fats and how, even after heart surgery, a dab of lard can be a good thing in the kitchen.
Fully hydrogenated oils are being used as a supposedly healthier replacement for partially hydrogenated oils. But food companies often blend fully hydrogenated oils with liquid vegetable oils and put them through a process called interesterification. This changes the structure of the oil so that it performs like a partially hydrogenated oil without the trans fat. Sounds great, but we don’t yet know whether interesterified fats might have their own adverse health consequences.
Read the ingredients list. If you see “partially hydrogenated oil,” that means some trans fat is present, even if the label says “0” trans fat, which is allowed if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams. Some products, such as Crisco All-Vegetable Shortening, contain both partially and fully hydrogenated oils. If the label just says “hydrogenated” oil, you don’t know if it’s fully or partially hydrogenated. Moreover, you can’t always tell from the label if a fully hydrogenated oil has been interesterified.Also, shortening makes a softer and less flaky pie crust, so there.
|Heart-friendly Olive Oyl.|
But it doesn't make very good biscuits or pies. And let's face it, every now and then ya like to have a biscuit or a slice of pie.
Yes, lard has a lot of saturated fat. At 39%, it's got triple the saturated fat of olive oil (but more than a third less than butter!) But it's also made up of 56% unsaturated fats and in 100g of lard you'll find 1000mg of Omega-3s. Compare that to butter, where the fat is 51% saturated and only 24% unsaturated. And while olive oil and shortening have no cholesterol at all, 100g of lard has only 95mg of cholesterol compared to butter's 215mg.
All of this is why I believe that an occasional slice of pie or biscuit for breakfast is no real danger. Moderation is the key. And truly, there isn't much lard in a single serving of a baked good shortened with lard. My favorite pie crust recipe, for example, calls for 1-3/4 cup of lard and makes enough for two double-crust pies. If you cut one of the resultant pies into 8 slices, each slice has less than two tablespoons of lard in the crust. That's not really that much. And my favorite biscuit recipe, which calls for a bit more than half a cup of fat, works out to less than a tablespoon of shortening-fat per serving (though I admit you get a little more total fat than that what with the buttermilk in it.)
Best Buttermilk Biscuits
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
5 cups flour
4 tsp salt (salt substitute may be used to reduce sodium)
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp lard or other fat (see note)
2 cups chilled buttermilk
Melted butter (optional)
Preheat oven to 475 F
Sift together baking powder, soda, flour and salt. Add the fat with a pastry blender until the flour is coarse and mealy-looking.
Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the buttermilk. Quickly mix the ingredients together until moistened. Add a bit more buttermilk if it seems to dry.
Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead only about ten times, until a ball forms. Pat the dough out to a 3/4-inch thickness and, using a fork, poke holes all over the dough at half-inch intervals. Use a 2-1/2 or 3-inch biscuit cutter to punch out biscuits (remember, go straight down with the cutter, never twist!) When you run out of room to cut more, gather up the scraps, pat it into a 3/4-inch thick pad again, and cut out as many more biscuits as you can. Arrange the biscuits on a parchment-covered cookie sheet and bake 12-15 minutes or until golden.
Brush with melted butter if desired while they're still warm and serve them up.
A note about the fat: You can use any kind of chilled fat for the shortening. I've made them with lard, drippings from a pork roast, and chilled rendered chicken fat. The pork roast ones were AWESOME.
Adapted from a recipe by Chef Scott Peacock via the New York Times.