Real Food Encyclopedia | Butter and Lard

Butter and lard are both fats used and enjoyed in the kitchen. Butter is probably much better known and enjoyed in the US right now, especially after its recent redemption as an actually-not-that-bad-for-you food, if eaten in moderation.

So what are we talking about when we talk about lard? Lard is rendered pig fat, and it can be made from different parts of the animal. 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.

<<View All Real Food Encyclopedia Entries

Fun Facts about Butter and Lard:

  • 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.
  • 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.

What to Look for When Buying Butter and Lard

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. Grassfed 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.

Sustainability of Butter and Lard

You can find lots of information on our site about the negative impacts of industrial milk and pork production, 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.
  • Overuse of Antibiotics: Antibiotics are used routinely in the industrial dairy and pork industries, not only to curb diseases that result from overcrowding but also (illegally, now) to increase animal growth.

It is becoming increasingly possible to find organic, sustainably raised butter and lard from local, small farmers or farming collectives. As an added benefit: some find that the local, grassfed butter and local lard from humanely raised animals tastes much more flavorful than the industrial stuff. Both can be a bit pricey, but we should be eating butter and lard in moderation anyway.

Butter and Lard 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.

Eating Butter and Lard

Storing Butter and Lard

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 and keeping them cold retards this process.

Cooking with Butter and Lard

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, even just shaking 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 béarnaisebéchamelhollandaise and beurre blanc, among many others. There’s also 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.

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.

Preserving Butter and Lard

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

Butter and Lard Nutrition

Both butter and lard are high in saturated fat, but currently not thought to be as bad for you as we thought in recent decades. 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 grassfed, 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.