Chefs become famous for a lot of reasons. Some you might question, but with others you always want to see what they're doing next.
Right now the food world tracks Sean Brock's every move. He's the chef at Husk Restaurant and McCrady's Restaurant in Charleston, S.C. Working with historians, scientists and farmers, Brock is bringing back old, forgotten Southern plants, dishes and ingredients -- including lard.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: I know you are part of the lardcore movement in the South. This is a group of chefs down South who are really digging into Southern traditions. What is the most important thing about lard for you?
Sean Brock: We don't use it because it's trendy. We use it because we use whole animals, and we have lots of lard. If you think about it, that's the way it used to be -- that's the old-fashioned way. You slaughtered the pig and you used every single part. You used lard until you ran out of it, and then you slaughtered another pig.
We're very focused on using the entire animal. We have lots of lard and it just works its way into our cuisine. It doesn't hurt that it's absolutely delicious.
LRK: This is very much a part of Southern history?
SB: Yes. It was a primary fat source pretty much throughout the 18th century and certainly the 19th century until Crisco was invented, which was the very early part of the 20th century around 1910 or 1911 I believe. People grew up eating it.
People are scared of it these days because they think it's so unhealthy, but it actually has less saturated fat than butter. It's all in moderation.
LRK: When you work with lard, what kinds of things are you doing with it?
SB: It's really our primary cooking source. At Husk we have the wood-burning oven and pretty much everything goes in there. We just have a huge container of rendered lard. Instead of canola oil or anything like that, if we're cooking a piece of catfish, if we're roasting a chicken, we're using lard. It goes so well with that wood-burning oven. It just makes things so delicious.
LRK: I've heard tell of lard caramel sauce, which sounds pretty interesting.
SB: It's so much fun to work with if you just think of it as a fat. One thing that we do that I think is really wonderful is that we put it into the smoker and we smoke it and we render it in the smoker. Then we have this smoked lard that we then turn into a caramel and sometimes add some whiskey to. You can serve that with just about anything. It's unbelievable.
We pretty much can take any recipe, pound cake even, and just any of the fat that's in any recipe, use the lard. We've even been known to take it and spin it into cotton candy.
LRK: Can I make lard at home?
SB: There are several kinds of lard, and it all comes from different parts of the animal. You have the leaf lard and then you have the fatback. I think the most prized is really the leaf lard, that's what people want to use for those wonderful, flaky, delicious, tender pie crusts. But there's not a whole lot of it. That's the lard that's right around the kidneys. It's really, really sweet and really delicious and really allows you to have that flaky pie crust. But the fatback is certainly wonderful and there are tons of that, there are a million different ways to do it.
If you want to render lard for your home, there are two ways. There's the dry method and the wet method. The wet method, you actually add water to it and boil it. That helps retain the smoke point. If you're going to be using it to really cook with at high temperatures, like to roast and sear, then you want to use the wet method. With the dry method you literally just put it into the pot, so that's reducing your smoke point. For us, we always do the wet.
LRK: So the wet would be I would take whatever fat I have that would be attached to meat?
SB: Yes, and it could be from any part of the animal.
LRK: I could be trimming it off a pork chop? I could even store it in the freezer maybe, and then do it all at once?
SB: Right. The fat won't emulsify into the water, so you render it down and render it down. Basically you're melting it.
LRK: Into the water?
SB: Yes. Then you can remove the fat from the water by refrigerating it.
LRK: Then the fat just floats on the top, I take it all out and I have lard.
SB: One thing that's a lot of fun to do is to flavor that lard during that process with maybe some hard herbs like rosemary, marjoram or thyme, and some garlic, chili flakes and some lemon. Then we'll mix it with butter. At the restaurant that's our bread service. We take butter and flavored lard, we whip it and then that's what you put on your rolls.
LRK: Small quantities but really delicious. What about the commercial lard sold in stores?
SB: There are actually two things to remember. One: It's not coming from a heritage breed pig, so the flavor is really not going to be there. Two: In order to allow it to be shelf stable -- you'll notice they don't refrigerate it -- it's hydrogenated just like Crisco, which I think affects the flavor a little bit and the texture.
My suggestion is to get to know a butcher who is proud to carry heritage breeds. I can promise you that they have lots and lots of lard lying around.
LRK: If they don't make the lard themselves, they can give you the fat and you can make it yourself.
SB: Yes, and it's so inexpensive and it's so delicious. It just gives your food so much character. Use it like butter. People use tons of butter in everything, so I think that as long as you use it in moderation, there's nothing wrong with it. It can really add a lot of character to your food.
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.