Lard is the rendered fat of a pig, and it can be used in cooking and baking. Historically, it has been a popular cooking ingredient, although it acquired a stigma in parts of the West in the 20th century. In some countries, rendered fat can be difficult to obtain, because consumers perceive it as being more unhealthy than butter or vegetable shortening.
In stores, it can sometimes be found in the Hispanic ingredients section, labeled Manteca, the Spanish word for lard. Be careful, however, as some Latin American Spanish speakers use manteca to refer to butter, or a butter and fat mixture. Lard can also be made at home, an increasingly popular option for consumers who want it fresh.
There are several grades available. The finest is leaf lard, which comes from the area around the kidneys of the pig. Back lard is another high grade, while rendered fat from other parts of the pig is less desirable. To make it, either a wet or dry rendering process is used. Wet lard is made by steaming or boiling fat. Since the fat is not water soluble, it will float to the top, and the cook can simply skim it off. Dry rendering uses a large pan and no water to heat the fat, allowing the cook to skim impurities away.
Fresh lard is not shelf stable, and it does need to be stored under refrigeration. Most commercial options are stabilized, often through hydrogenation, which means that they can contain harmful trans fats. Plain fresh lard is actually not more harmful than fats such as butter, although heavily processed forms may contain harmful compounds. Lard also has a much higher smoking point than butter, making it suitable for a wide range of dishes.
There are all sorts of uses for lard. It has been traditionally popular in pastry, since it yields light, flaky pastries such as pies. It can also be used as an all-purpose cooking and frying fat. Lard is also inserted into or wrapped around meats to baste them while they cook, in a process known as larding. High quality varieties are rich with a relatively neutral flavor, and they can be used to replace butter in recipes. When using them as a butter replacement, use approximately one-fifth less than the recipe calls for.
Alternatives include vegetable shortening such as Crisco. These shortenings tend to behave slightly differently, calling for some adjustments. In addition, many vegetable shortening projects contain trans fats. These fats have been shown to be dangerous to human health, and people should avoid consuming them, if possible.