Praise the Lard Bread

Lard. The word itself stokes fear and derision. It’s not healthy. Lard causes heart disease, and it makes you fat. Who wants to be a “tub of lard” or a “lard ass”?

Humans domesticated pigs more than 9000 years ago. The butchering of hogs produces a lot of fat and fatty skin. Nothing goes to waste, so for thousands of years kitchens stocked lard to use as cooking fat.

All of this changed in the early 1900’s. Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, in 1906 highlighted the horrors of the meatpacking industry of the day. Not long after, the proliferation of electricity decimated the candle industry, flooding the market with cheap cottonseed oil. A new market was needed to put that oil to use, and big business stepped in to develop hydrogenation. This process made oil into a product, Crisco, which looked, and cooked, very much like lard. To strengthen their market, big business made health claims to promote the new product as a replacement for “unhealthy” lard.

It took a while, but it was subsequently determined that partially hydrogenated oils contain trans-fats which are the most unhealthy of all. While Crisco changed the formula to remove trans-fats, the table has turned. Lard is back. Make no mistake. Lard is fat, and any diet that does not moderate fat intake is certainly not healthy. Lard contains cholesterol, so don’t get carried away.

The fact is that lard has flavor. At our place, we butcher a few pigs each year resulting in a lot of pork fat being on hand. I make lard by grinding the pork fat and then heating in a large pot until the fat renders. This results in pure white lard.

The main reason for our hog butchering is for delicious cured meats. Making prosciutto and coppa, we end up with odd bits looking for some use. The coppa ends, too small to slice, and the morsels of prosciutto next to the bone cannot go to waste. I mince the bits and put them with Brussels sprouts to oven roast to crispy goodness. But what else? I was on the lookout for ways to use the scraps.

I’m a big fan of exploring old neighborhoods. Years ago, on a quest to sample New York pizza, we set off to explore the Cobble Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn. Passing by the Caputo Bakery on Court Street, we smelled deliciousness coming from within. Pausing, we were told it was the “Lard Bread.” It was the best, they said. If we wanted it, we had better get in there and buy it before they sold out, they said. We were on a mission for pizza, not to be sidetracked by some mysterious bread, but if there was time and if they had a loaf left later, we proposed to stop in on our way back to the subway. We did have some very fine pizza and managed to meet a few old school characters in the process.

We eventually got our loaf of lard bread (and a few cookies), still warm from the oven. Back at the hotel, the smell of the loaf filled our room with its intoxicating scent of fresh bread and pork fat. We tried a bit, and it definitely lived up to the hype!

What is lard bread? There are a few theories on the history of these breads from Brooklyn, parts of New Jersey, and Philadelphia. The one that makes the most sense to me is that Italian bakeries would hand out bread filled with odd bits of meat and cheese to needy people. One such story suggests that needy people in Philly were referred to as being “on the hoak” or “hoakies.” Thus, the bread with meat and cheese became the famous Philadelphia “hoagie.” It’s a story we see all over the world. The poorest people have to make do with what is available, it becomes something special for them, and then that special food of the poor folks is elevated to excellence. In Italy, Cucina Povera is common and gives us some of the very best dishes in the world. So it is with lard bread.

I started this post with the brief history of lard because I am certain that some readers cringed at the words “lard bread.” I mean, it has lard (gasp) and bread (carbs…shudder). Fugeddaboutit. Let’s make our own, right?

Sourdough is my go-to bread for the best flavor and I have my 75% hydration sourdough down pat, so that is the basis of my recipe here. If you’re not into sourdough baking, then you can take out a portion of the water and hydrate the yeast in that water.

Sourdough Lard Bread Recipe

200g Unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour
138g Non-chlorinated water (filtered tap water works fine)
100g Active sourdough starter
5g Sea salt

1/2 cup prosciutto or coppa diced in 1/8″cubes
1/2 cup crumbled Pecorino Romano cheese
1/4t freshly ground black pepper
2T lard, melted

Mix the flour and water to thoroughly combine. I use my stand mixer for this. Let it rest for 20 minutes. This allows the flour to hydrate before adding leavening and salt. Add sourdough starter and salt. Knead using dough hook until the dough forms into a ball and does not stick to the sides of the mixing bowl.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled container with a lid. Three times at 45 minute intervals, wet your hands, take the dough out of the container, and stretch and fold the dough several times placing tension on the dough. After the third time, the gluten should be well developed and the dough will be strong enough to stretch without tearing. Allow the dough to rise in bulk until it is doubled. At this point, you can place the dough in the fridge to develop more flavor and extensibility. The cold ferment is not necessary for this loaf, but it will improve the bread a bit.

Preheat oven to 420F. Place the dough on a floured work surface and stretch it out in a large oval. Cover the dough with the diced meat, crumbled cheese, and black pepper. Roll up tightly, folding the ends in to make a loaf that will fit in your loaf pan. Place the dough in the lightly oiled loaf pan. I prefer a metal pan for this. Let the dough rise a bit while the oven finishes heating.

Bake the loaf for 20 minutes. At 20 minutes the loaf will be brown, but not dark. Remove the loaf from the oven and brush it with half of the melted lard. Make sure to get around the edges so the fat runs down the sides of the loaf. Put it back in the oven and finish it until it is the desired color. Remove from the oven and brush with the remaining lard. Take the loaf out of the pan and cool on wire rack.

This bread makes some mighty fine toast.

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