22 August, 2014

A Discussion of Fats, A Defense Of Lard, and an Amazing Biscuit Recipe.

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.

First of all, let me come right out and tell you that I don't use shortening at all. Although most shortening is made from vegetable oil and should, in theory, be "better for you" than some other fats, the reason why it stays solid is because it's been hydrogenated. You might be familiar with the huge flap a few years ago about trans fat and its proven direct link to heart disease. When vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated, it creates trans fats. Although vegetable shortenings today claim not to contain trans fats because they are fully hydrogenated, I still don't really trust them. To quote from University of California's Berkeley Wellness website :
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.
I'll be honest, though: if I need a high-heat oil for stir fry, I use peanut oil. For the occasional deep-fried food, I use canola oil. And I always have a bottle of sesame oil on hand - it burns at a relatively low temperature, but just a dash of it added to the usual frying oil imparts a rich nutty flavor. And, of course, I use olive oil for all-occasion sauteing and stuff. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fat (almost 75%)  and has a fair level of polyunsaturated fat (about 11%) and there are 760mg of Omega-3 fatty acids in every 100 grams.  There's a reason why it's considered "heart friendly."

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.

Enter lard.

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.

The fact of the matter is for an occasional baked treat, lard is a good choice for a shortening agent. It's not nearly as cardiocloggy as butter. (If you're making delicious biscuits, you might also consider rendered chicken fat for a shortening agent as well - the profile is very similar to lard, but with less cholesterol and more unsaturated fat.) But be careful: Most commercially-available lard contains, according to the labels, "Lard and Hydrogenated Lard" (these include brands like Armour, Morrell Snow Cap, and Goya.) This is why it's important to read the label. If you can't find locally-produced small-farm lard near you (or if you can't afford it, because let's face it, small batch lard is damn expensive) there are a couple of alternatives. Lundy's brand lard, for example, is refined but not hydrogenated and so is Hatfield brand. (In the Hartford CT / Springfield MA area where I live, you can find Lundy's at Save-A-Lot stores.)

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.


KPlacek said...

Welcome back Dave! You don't know me - but I have had you on my reader for years and was glad to see you back :) Great post - I am anxious to find me some lard!

Aeurella said...

Hi, Dave.

Might I ask you how you found out that Lundy's Lard, which I just purchased and really do like, is not hydrogenated? I never received a call back from their company with an answer to this question and want to make sure I am not being fooled by only reading "refined" on the label.

Secondly, do you happen to know what they mean by "refined"'?

Thanks so much!

Lard Lovin' in NJ

Dave said...

Aeurella - The FDA requires that hydrogenated fats be specifically listed on an ingredient label if they are present in the food. Armour's lard label lists "Lard and Hydrogenated Lard" - as do many other brands. Lundy's, however, lists only "Refined Lard." "Refined" just means that it's been filtered to get the little bits out of it.

Unknown said...

Dave, just came across your blog about lard after doing a google search. I've been trying to find a non-hydrogenated lard for some time. I've tried Armour and Manteca Snow cap for my pie pastry...but they always had an aftertaste that wasn't appealing. I'm originally from Canada and am accustomed to Tenderflake.Today I found Lundy's at Save-a-lot and am hoping I have better luck with my pastry for my apple pies. I see your pie crust recipe is similar to that on the Tenderflake box....regardless of what brand lard I've tried here in the States, I've always followed the Tenderflake recipe...but have never quite hit the nail on the head. Here's hoping that I've finally found a 'comparable' lard.