Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Butter and Lard

My family has never been afraid of butter, even in the height of the anti-saturated fat madness that started in the 1970s. I'd come home from school, make a snack of salted sweet cream butter spread on saltines and watch He-Man (hey, it was the 80s). My mother always believed that butter was better for you than margarine, and it turns out that she was right! As a graduate of a French culinary school, butter still plays an important role in my kitchen, and I've also learned to embrace lard for its superior pastry-making (plus home-rendered lard fills your house with the most awesome pork-y perfume). But where lard really won my heart was in Italy, visiting my husband's family in Modena. There, I first tried lardo, an Italian salume made with lard, piled on top of little round hearth breads called tigelle or tucked into fried dough squares called gnocco. Heaven.

A Brief History

As long as people have been milking mammals, they have probably been making butter. The first butter was likely made from sheep or goats' milk, as these animals were domesticated early, somewhere around 8,000 to 9,000 BCE. In North America, the vast majority of the butter we consume comes from cows, of course, which have a fascinating domestication history. Paleogeneticists have come to the conclusion that modern cattle (Bos taurus) are all descended from a small group - about 80 - of large wild oxen called aurochs that lived in the Near East somewhere around 10,500 years ago. That's right: all of the 1.4 billion cattle in the world today are descended from a small herd of 80 animals. As Harold McGee tells us in his book, On Food and Cooking, the earliest evidence of dairying was found in northern Europe, dating from about 5,000 BCE. Butter was mentioned in the Rg Veda (circa 1,200 BCE) and milk and dairy products are mentioned many times in the Old Testament. McGee notes that in Europe, dairying was common on land that could not support the growth of grains - like the Dutch lowlands, alpine valleys in Switzerland and Austria, western France, the British Isles and Scandinavia. Each of these areas still has a strong dairy tradition and many are famous for their butter. In the United States, the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink notes that butter was available commercially around 1922, made into bars by a dairy cooperative in Minnesota - later called Land O'Lakes.

Pigs, from which lard comes, were probably first domesticated around the same time as sheep or goats, according to the Oxford Companion to Food . Recent genetic evidence points to pigs being descended from Eurasian wild boars, with DNA studies demonstrating independent domestication of the animals in both Europe and Asia. Bones from domesticated pigs have been found in Mesopotamia as early as 7,000 BCE, and they remain important food animals in much of the world.

Factual Nibbles

  • Smen is fermented butter from Morocco that lasts for years. It's commonly made from the milk of sheep or goats, or a combination of the two. 
  • Lactating? Make your own breast milk butter! (Sorry not sorry)
  • "Bog butter," butter that has been found buried in peat bogs, is a phenomenon that dates from the mid-Iron Age in Ireland and Scotland. It is speculated that dairy farmers used the natural antimicrobial properties of peat bogs to preserve butter, or that the buried butter represented an offering to spirits. 
  • Here's a butter sculpture of John Stamos. And here's an article on the history of butter sculpture, should you require a deeper dive on this subject. 
  • This fascinating article from NPR describes why lard went from being the most popular cooking fat 100 years ago to becoming a derogatory term for "fat." The first culprit was Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, a fictionalized account of the meat packing industry of the day. The book famously describes workers falling into lard cooking vats and being turned into lard themselves. Around the same time, Crisco was invented and marketed as a wholesome, clean alternative to lard - and that was the beginning of the end of the lard industry in the US.

Production

Cow's milk butter is made from cream, the fatty part of the milk. In traditional butter production, the milk is left overnight to allow the cream to rise to the surface. In the process, the mixture is naturally inoculated with lactic-acid producing bacteria present in unpasteurized milk. The cream is then agitated, which essentially makes the fat in the mixture to clump together and forces out the water. The resulting butter is cultured and has a tangy taste, and the watery substance that this process produces is true buttermilk. Commercial butter is pasteurized, and generally skips the fermentation period (cultured and European butters are the exception). Here's a video of how commercial butter is made. Ireland and Normandy, France are particularly famous for their rich, delicious butter.

Lard is rendered pig fat, and it can be made from different parts of the animal. Leaf lard is the finest type of lard, and the kind of lard that is best for making pastries. It is made from the fat that accumulates around the animal's kidneys. Lard can also be made from back fat, which is fat that collects between the pig's meat and its skin, and from other fat deposits around the animal's organs. Artisinal lard is produced from sustainably raised animals and rendered the old fashioned way, by heating the lard gently until any bits of flesh, skin and membrane can be skimmed off. Commercially produced lard is made from factory-farmed animals and is usually hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated (this makes it more shelf-stable), bleached and deodorized.

Seasonality

Traditionally, butter has been produced year-round. (Butter produced in different seasons was prized for different flavors imparted by whatever the cows ate.) Pigs were traditionally slaughtered and pork products like lard produced in the late autumn or early winter. Of course, both butter and lard are now available year-round.

Environmental Impact

We've talked a great deal about the negative environmental impacts of Big Dairy and the pork industry - here and here for example - but the bottom line is this: industrial livestock production (aka factory farming) has major problems, including problems with:

  • Waste management. Raising thousands of animals in tightly confined quarters creates huge volumes of manure, which results in water pollution and diminished quality of life for those who live near factory farms. 
  • Animal welfare. Crowded, unhealthy conditions and cruel practices in the dairy and pork industries are rampant. In some dairy factory farming, rBGH is used to increase milk production, which can result in mastitis (painful infections of the udders) and other issues, requiring increased antibiotic use. 
  • Over use of antibiotics. Antibiotics are used routinely in the industrial dairy and pork industries, not only to curb diseases that result from overcrowding, but also to increase animal growth. We've talked a lot about the dangers of the overuse of antibiotics (here and here), including antibiotic resistance and so-called "super bugs."

It is becoming increasingly easy to find organic, sustainably raised butter and lard from local, small farmers or farming collectives. As an added benefit: I think local, grass-fed butter and local lard from humanely raised animals tastes so much better than the industrial stuff. Both can be a bit pricey, but we should be eating butter and lard in moderation anyway (more on that, below)!

Characteristics

In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee helps us decipher the different kinds of butter we most commonly see, as follows:

  • Sweet cream butter - the most common butter we see in the US, sweet cream butter is produced without the benefit of beneficial bacteria (i.e., it is not cultured). It must be at least 80 percent fat and may be salted or unsalted.
  • Cultured cream butter - a commercially produced version of traditional butter-making, cultured cream butter is made from cream that has been inoculated with beneficial bacteria and allowed to ripen. This produces delicious flavor. 
  • European-style butter - is becoming much more common in the US. European-style butter is generally cultured butter that is higher in fat than the standard 80 percent (usually 82 percent to 85 percent). 
  • Whipped butter - commercially produced by injecting nitrogen gas into sweet cream butter to make it more spreadable.

The flavor of butter can also be influenced by what the cows eat. Cows that are allowed on pasture and that can eat wild herbs and plants produce more flavorful butter. Grass-fed butter also tends to be more yellow in color than butter from cows raised on commercial feed or silage. You can make butter from any kind of milk - including milk from goats, sheep, buffalo and even camels and horses. (Apparently there is some controversy as to whether you can or cannot make butter from camel milk. Here's a really interesting paper from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization about camel milk products, which would make a good conversation starter at your next dinner party.)

Commercially produced, hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) lard is not much different from Crisco or other vegetable shortenings - it's pure white, solid at room temperature, and usually devoid of any pork-y goodness. Rendering your own lard from pastured animals produces a much more flavorful product (yes, it does taste a bit pork-y), plus you get to eat the cracklings the rendering produces!

Nutrition

Both butter and lard are high in saturated fat, and we've been indoctrinated here in the US to think of saturated fat as very, very bad. But recent research published in the British Medical Journal seems to indicate that the dietary guidelines surrounding saturated fat are not based on solid scientific evidence - and indeed, that intake of saturated fat may not affect coronary heart disease rates as much as we thought. That is not to say that butter and lard should be consumed with abandon - they are still packed with fat and calories, after all - but they also don't need to be the dietary demons they once were. (The exception to this is commercially produced lard, which has the triple whammy of being high in trans fats, saturated fat and cholesterol. No one needs that.) A tablespoon of butter is about 100 calories, and represents about 36 percent of the current recommended guidelines for saturated fat intake. Butter, especially grass-fed, is high in Vitamins A and E. A tablespoon of lard, in comparison, is about 115 calories, but is only about 25 percent of your daily saturated fat intake. Lard is also lower in cholesterol than butter, but doesn't contain Vitamins A and E.

What to Do with It and Cooking

Butter is an important fat in much of Europe and on the Indian subcontinent. In India, a type of clarified butter, called ghee, is used because it keeps for much longer in high heat environments. Clarified butter is the butterfat that remains when butter is cooked and the milk fat has been removed (here's how you do it). Ghee is made using the same process but it is cooked longer and allowed to caramelize a bit. It is extremely shelf-stable - and you can easily make your own. It's also ridiculously easy to make your own butter, and as an added bonus, the buttermilk you'll produce in the process is delicious in biscuits and other pastries. All you need is heavy cream and a way to agitate the mixture - I usually use my stand mixer, but you can also use a hand held mixer or even just shake it up in a jar (this is particularly fun for kids and a good way to burn off excess energy when you're cooped up in the winter). You can even make your own cultured butter very, very easily.

Of course, butter is used in all sorts of desserts, from cakes to cookies. It is also an important ingredient in many classic French sauces - like béarnaise, béchamel, hollandaise and beurre blanc, among many others. A staple in my house for vegetables, fish and cakes is brown butter (beurre noisette) - basically butter that has been cooked until the milk solids are brown, deliciously nutty and caramelized. You can even make brown butter ice cream!

If you find a good source of sustainably raised pork, you can ask your pork farmer to supply you with leaf lard or back fat. You'll have to render the lard yourself, but it's easy - you can do it in the oven, in a crock-pot or on the stove. This article shows you how to render lard on the stove and also explains why pork fat needs to be rendered in the first place.

Butter and lard make exceptional pastry crusts. Lard tends to make flakier crusts than butter, as this article in Serious Eats explains, because butter contains more water than lard, which makes the dough particles stick together rather than form flakes. You can also combine butter and lard for a truly superior pastry in both flavor and texture. Be aware that when using lard, especially non-commercial lard, you may be able to discern a bit of a pork-y flavor in your crust. (This I particularly like, especially with fruit pies, but if you're not into pork it may be too much for you.)

In Italy and other areas where lard is a common fat, it is made into a kind of spread or salume for eating as an appetizer. In Italy, this is called lardo and it is usually seasoned with rosemary or other spices. The most famous lardo comes from Colonnata, also famous for its marble. (Traditionally, lardo is cured in marble casks - here's an explanation and picture from Michael Ruhlman's blog.) You can try your hand at making your own lardo with this recipe from Hank Shaw. Poles make a similar lard appetizer, called smalec, for spreading on bread - here's a recipe.

Storage

Commercially produced butter will keep for several months in the refrigerator, but it may start to develop off-flavors if stored for too long. Butter can also be frozen successfully. If you make your own butter, it will keep no longer than one week in the refrigerator - this is because the washing process that you do at home is not as efficient as in commercial butter production; the washing step is an important part of the preservation process. Freeze homemade butter if you'd like to keep it for longer.

Commercial lard is generally shelf-stable (that's why it is hydrogenated), but if you render your own, it's best stored in the freezer or the refrigerator to preserve its flavor (but home rendered lard is shelf stable for a few months). Both butter and lard go rancid easily when exposed to oxygen; keeping them cold retards this process.

Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation

You can try your hand at making smen, the North African fermented butter. It theoretically will keep for months and months.

Recipe

Strawberry, Rosemary and Meyer Lemon Compound Butter

You guys, do me a favor. Make your own butter, and be sure to save the real buttermilk that you produce. Then make this compound butter with the butter you made. Then make buttermilk biscuits with the buttermilk you saved. Slather biscuits with the butter, then die of happiness. 

This compound butter also tastes fantastic on corn muffins, pancakes and scones. Be sure to chop the rosemary very, very finely so you don't get rosemary chunks stuck in your craw when you're wolfing down those buttermilk biscuits.

A note about ingredients: I used frozen strawberries because it's winter. You could substitute fresh in-season. Meyer lemons are sweeter than regular lemons, with more tender rind. Substitute oranges or lemons (or a combination of the two) if you can't find Meyer lemons.

Ingredients:

1 stick organic, unsalted butter, softened
14 cup frozen strawberries
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon rosemary, very finely minced
Zest of one small Meyer lemon, finely grated (I recommend a Microplane grater for this)
1 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice

Method:

  1. Add the frozen strawberries, sugar and rosemary to a small saucepan. Cook on low heat until the strawberries have broken down, mashing with a fork or the back of a wooden spoon on occasion. Cool completely.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the softened butter, the cooled strawberry mixture, the Meyer lemon zest and the Meyer lemon juice. Stir with a wooden spoon to combine completely. Using a square of plastic wrap, form the compound butter into a log and twist the ends. Place in the refrigerator to firm before using. (The butter can also be frozen for several months; wrap in an additional layer of tin foil before freezing.)