Butter is wonderful, isn't it? So flavorful; so comforting; so rich and mellow; and, on top of everything else, so versatile. I tend to use a large amount of butter in my cooking demonstrations as a chef instructor at Le Cordon Bleu. It's no secret that the French love butter and often use it lavishly in their recipes. Whether it's clarified for high heat sauteing, or whole and fresh to enrich a fluffy pot of pommes puree, butter is the "go to" fat in many French preparations. As good as butter is, this article is actually meant to focus on an often overlooked fat that is every bit as useful and in some ways more delicious than butter; lard.
You may think it strange to hear anyone openly declare a passion for rendered pig fat, but it really is wonderful and delicious stuff. Still used in many traditional southern recipes like biscuits and fried chicken, lard (also called shortening by many cooks) once enjoyed much greater popularity throughout much of the U.S. and many parts of Europe. Pigs have historically been popular and easy to keep on a small scale, and a constant supply of lard for cooking and baking was one of the many perks of having a pig or three wandering around the farm.
My family and I were shopping at a great old world German-style market in Chicago the other day, and I was lucky enough to find a cooler packed full of pints of creamy white, freshly rendered lard for sale. Freshness is an extremely important point to take into consideration when purchasing lard, for not all of it is created equal. I would never recommend buying the shelf stable, hydrogenated "lard" available in most grocery stores; other than being white, it has absolutely no resemblance to the real stuff. Also, even though it's called shortening, Crisco is not lard. It's actually made from vegetable oils. Real lard has a distinctly roasty pork aroma, and it tastes like a pork cracklin'.
When I returned home with my purchase, I used it to make a big batch of tamales for my family's dinner that night. Wow! What an amazing flavor it brought to the masa. If you've never eaten a tamal made with good lard, you've got a real treat waiting for you. Find yourself a source for this amazing product and use it in place of butter or oil in your favorite recipes. Whether you're using it to saute, deep fry, or baste a roast, it will make you very happy and prone to shouting out "Praise the Lard!"