On Zarela's Mind: Praise the Lard!

Praise the lard! You heard right. Lard is not the villain it’s been made out to be. But there is a catch: It has to be home-rendered. Commercial lard is what has given this flavorful fat its bad name. In order to make the product solid, the molecules have to be filled or saturated—and that is the type of fat we need to avoid for health reasons. Home-rendered lard is 2/3 unsaturated and contains oleic acid, the same ingredient that in olive oil helps break down cholesterol.

Lard was the most popular fat until the 1950s, when scientists discovered that animal fats could lead to heart disease. But they did not know the whole story. The products that replaced lard in the kitchen—like margarines and vegetable shortenings—would have problems of their own, namely artery-clogging trans fats and hydrogenated fats.

Today, lard has made a come-back. Professional chefs like Mario Batali even put it on the table or on his menus as lardo and it is again very trendy.

Best of all, it is very easy to make: Buy unsalted pork fat from your butcher and put in the freezer for a few minutes to harden. Place in a heavy Dutch oven or deep frying pan and either cook it in the oven at 300 until nicely melted or do it on top of the stove where you can watch it.

Want to see how it’s done? You can see my video here.

Of course, I don’t use lard for everything. I love camarones al ajillo or fish al mojo de ajo, two garlic-and-olive-oil based dishes. I also use olive oil for seafood cocktails, salads and other dishes. In general, though, it does not have the right flavor notes for most traditional Mexican dishes. Another option I favor is vegetable oil flavored by slow cooking onions that are then drained. It adds an elusive flavor to certain braised chicken dishes and beef stews.

But nothing beats lard for frying because its high melting point allows for a delicious crispness without the food absorbing too much fat. Try it next time you make fried chicken or buñuelos. Lard adds flavor and richness to refried beans and makes wonderfully flaky pie crust and another holiday specialty bizcochos. It melds the flavors of the countless ingredients that go into a mole. But most of all, it is essential for making truly fluffy and light tamales.

We’re coming up on the prime tamal season, so start making lard because next week I’ll show you how I make my grandmother’s special tamales.

Award-winning restaurateur Zarela Martinez blogs at Zarela.com. You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.

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