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The Nasty Bits: How to Use Leaf Lard in Pastry Doughs

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

April is prime pie-making time. The warmer weather brings with it more berries, stone fruits, and rhurbarb, yet ambient temperatures are still cool enough for handling pie crusts. Unlike bread, cookies, or really any any other baked good, pastry crusts celebrate the deliciousness of fat suspended in flour: formed quickly with just a bit of water to moisten the dough, tender and flaky pastry crusts are an explosion of fatty flavors in the mouth.

Why use lard in pastries? Butter produces extremely good crusts, yet lard holds two distinct advantages over an all-butter crust:

Still, embracing the lard in pies comes with its own set of limitations. Whereas butter retains the properly malleable-yet-firm consistency for making pastries at a temperature range of 58 to 69°F, Harold McGee says that lard only has a workable range at a slightly higher temperature, up to 75 degrees. If you've ever worked with lard as well as butter pastries, you've noticed this critical difference between the two kinds of fats: Lard, set at room temperature for even a few minutes, softens considerably more quickly than butter.

Shortening, the most forgiving medium to work with, maintains a hard consistency for the widest ambient temperature: from 53 to 85°F. However, given its relatively higher melting point, shortening remains solid at room temperature and, having very little flavor to begin with, will never yield the burst of deliciousness that butter and lard can produce.

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Pie enthusiasts have and will continue to debate the intricacies of crust-making, but if you're looking for a change from butter or shortening, consider the crust that's half-butter and half-lard. Using both butter and lard consistently yields a well-textured, tender yet manageable crust.

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In a taste test comparing all-lard, all-butter, and half-lard/half-butter pies, the crust with both lard and butter was easily the most tender and flaky. At first, only the butter is added to the flour and worked into pea-sized lumps, after which the lard is quickly cut into the mixture. Just enough ice water binds the mixture to form a dough. The resulting crust carries a porky note that's barely discernible once the the pie is filled. (The dough, which follows the classic baking ratio of 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, and 1 part water, may also be used to line tart pans.)

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Leaf lard, pre-rendering. Need to know how to render this stuff? Here's our leaf lard rendering how-to.

Finally, as is the case for incorporating lard into any kind of baked or fried pastry, leaf lard is the type of pig fat you want to use. Fat stored under the skin of an animal, such as fatback, is softer than that which is stored in the cooler core of the body. Leaf lard, which clings to the belly cavity of the pig, is hard and glossy; when rendered, it is ideal for incorporating into flour.

Lard and Butter Flaky Pastry Dough

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, The Offal Cook.

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