What is leaf lard, and why should you bake with it?
So, the internet is telling you to use this thing called pork leaf lard in your pie crusts. And so are chefs, foodies, bakers, and ranchers. BUT WHY? And what in the world is leaf lard? Well, I’m here to save the day and, I’ll tell ya, I had to scour some deep academic research papers to get to the bottom of the why. I mean, I've always told customers that leaf lard is the best, but when I went to find out why it yields such a flaky, tender pie crust, I couldn't find the answer. All the available info on the internet was superficial and non explanatory. Also, A LOT of it- even from reputable resources that I generally trust- was flat out wrong.
When it comes to animal fats, not all fat is created equal. They all have their own virtues, sure, but the more you get to know the anatomy of the animal, the more likely it is that you can identify and distinguish between fat from the shoulder, leg, loin, and so on. When it comes to pork, good butchers and charcutiers classify pork fat in different groups related to the kind of charcuterie you can make with them. When it comes to baking, though, the fat from one particular area of the animal is king. This fat, called leaf fat, comes from around the kidney of the animal, and the abdominal lining. It has a different texture than fat from the rest of the animal. It’s more delicate and soft, easily crushed between your fingers, and more mellow in flavor than fat from the rest of the pig. The fat, when rendered (or cooked down) becomes leaf lard. The rest of the fat from the animal, when rendered, becomes just plain lard.
Okay, that’s what leaf lard is. But what’s the big deal about using leaf lard in pie crusts? I know from experience that using leaf lard can yield an incredibly tender and flaky crust. But I really wanted to know why. From my research, I believe there are five major qualities of leaf lard that make it superior for pie crusts:
Lard has a higher melting point than butter. This is a good thing because you want whatever fat you’re using to stay in crystals as long as possible in the oven so that the structure of the pie can set before they melt. This helps in the creation of flaky layers.
Leaf lard has a higher smoke point than butter and a more mellow flavor than regular lard. This is a good thing because, most of the time, we’re making sweet pies and we don’t want them to taste like bacon. Also, butter can easily burn in a hot oven and when you’re trying to bake your pies nice and brown as is the trend today, the last thing you want is a burned butter flavor.
Lard is higher in healthy unsaturated fats and lower in saturated fats than butter. Okay, I’m not sure yet if this relates to the quality of your pie crust but, as I see it, it is related to the quality of your life. Interestingly, lard is also a good source of vitamin d and other healthy nutrients especially if the pig leads a good life and eats the right diet.
Lard has a lower water content than butter. Actually, lard has no water in it and butter usually has between 14% and 18%. So, the thing about water in your fat of choice is that water activates gluten in flour and gluten is something you don’t want too much of in a pie crust. Not that you don’t want any, but you’ll have plenty of time to activate a little gluten when you actually add water intentionally to the crust. Until then, you want to limit the water.
Lard has larger fat crystals than butter. From what I could tell from the research, this isn’t always strictly true. And this is important for butchers to know too. It seems that the size of the fat crystals correlates directly with the speed and intensity of cooling after rendering. FASCINATIN! SO, if you cool your rendered lard more slowly and over more time, you’ll allow larger crystals to develop. Large crystals of fat are good because, as with the higher melting point thing, the crystals take longer to melt in the oven, and create bigger pockets and, therefore, more flake.
Wow, I have to say, I’ll never cool my rendered lard the same way again. :) But seriously, though, it’s nice to know why things work they way they do. One important note to end with: it appears to me, from all the research I did, that many of these characteristics also apply to regular lard, and regular pork fat. The difference is that leaf lard has the more delicate flavor that bakers prefer for sweet pies. Also, if I can form one hypothesis for us all to think on, I also know that leaf fat renders faster and more easily than normal pork fat and that, perhaps, this interrupts the fat structure less, leading to those desirable big fat crystals. If you can’t find leaf fat to render or leaf lard to use, try regular lard from a good butcher. As long as it’s rendered slowly, it should have a mellow enough flavor. Remember to COOL IT SLOWLY!
Yours in pork fat,
Here are some of the resources I used:
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