Rethinking Lard and Lardo

It’s hard to think of fat as a healthy food. As consumers we’re bombarded with nutritional information nebulous as it is shifting and changing. Diet fads and questionable research aim those trying to eat healthier in new directions seemingly every day. Today’s curse on animal fats is the foundation of tomorrow’s ketosis diet. It’s no wonder people are confused. 

If there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that bacon is bad for you, right? All that liquified, artery-clogging fat that drips off a slab just pulled from the frying pan is prima facie evidence that bacon, despite its unquestionable deliciousness, will eventually kill you. It stands to reason that any fat from the same animal will subject you to a similar fate, doesn’t it? 

Well, that might not be the case. 

Imagine a thin slice of delicate pig fat cured in herbs and spices. The melt-in-your-mouth texture is rich and almost sweet, a glorious companion to a poached egg or a chunk of rustic bread and a glass of wine. What if this fat had the ability to lower your risk of “bad” cholesterol, and might even be able to reduce your risk of heart disease? Pretty sweet. Enter lard and it’s Tuscan son lardo, a salume made for over two thousand years. 

You might be thinking - doesn’t lardo have the word “lard” in it? How can that possibly be healthy? For that answer I turn to an expert. Peter Burrows, owner of Brown Boar Farm in Wells, Vermont, sets the record straight. “The last few generations of Americans have been led to believe that eating pork lard leads to clogged arteries, heart attacks, and strokes.” That is not true, Burrows explains. “Lard from pastured pigs is classified as a monounsaturated fat, just like olive oil.” This suggests lardo might help regulate insulin levels, lower cholesterol, and even drop blood sugar levels. Not bad for a fat most often incorrectly grouped with margarine and solid shortenings. 

The secret is “pasture raised”, which means the animals receive a significant portion of their nutrition from organically managed pasture and stored dried forages and have access to outdoor pastures year-round, stipulations which exceed those needed to call animals simply “100% grass fed.” This distinction is critical in making lardo. “Pigs must have access to sunlight to synthesize vitamin D and store it in their fatty tissues,” he said. “Animals kept indoors, as in commercial hog raising operations, have no exposure to sunlight.

Heritage pigs, like those Brown Boar Farms raises, retain traits which allow them to remain outdoors year-round. This increased exposure to weather spurs them to develop thicker back fat, one of three sources of fat. As explained by Burrows, the other two sources are the “flare” located around the animal’s kidneys and around the loin, and caul fat, often used to wrap lean meats and påtés. 

Industrially-produced versions lack the benefit of these traits. Furthermore, additives are used which bring us right back to the bad fat problem. “Unfortunately, store-bought lard is likely to have been hydrogenated to lengthen shelf-life, making it a source of trans fats,” Burrows laments. “Industrial lard processes also commonly includes bleaching, deodorizing agents, and emulsifiers.” Yuck. 

Chefs love lardo for the taste and high smoke-point in cooking. Bakers love it because it doesn’t melt as quickly as butter, making it great for lighter breads and crusts. With healthy animals fats trending as a new culinary darling, lard and lardo are ready to take their places on discerning plates everywhere.

Originally published in Edible South Shore, Spring 2019.

Adam Centamore