Better Bakers Love Lard (and shortening, too)

15 Jul

So, when did the War Against Fat begin?  Was that the 80s?  The 70s?  I don’t know.  I was born in one decade and grew up in the next, and I do remember hearing about the evils of fat on, like, Phil Donahue or something like that until even I thought rice cakes might be good.  (Nasty!)  I never did hear about the Death Fat at home, where fat was used in cooking because good food calls for it.  The trick is, of course, that virtually none of the food I had as a kid was of the processed variety.  Lucky me, I know, so until the day I get my angioplasty, I will preach that fat in food is fine so long as it’s not processed food.

But fat in bakery?  It does give one pause, doesn’t it, because great bakery is based on the delicious but luckless triumvirate of flour, sugar, and fat.  Here’s the thing, though: The best bakery is not something you have everyday in large quantities.  It’s rich enough and filling enough that you can’t eat a lot of it.  And yes–it’s not processed, so you’re already ahead of the game.

This means that making great bakery, and great desserts in particular, is no time to starting thinking about nutrition content.  Portion sizes, maybe, but honestly, if you start making “healthy” substitutions, you’ll just end up with these foul little bricks of crap that will give Dean Ornish a heart attack anyway.  Also, your guests will laugh at you behind your back.  And you’ll deserve it.

If you’d prefer to avoid humiliation at the hand of some silly health claim, allow me, then, to offer you a short treatise on the true beauty and real utility of lard and shortening:

Lard.  This is an amazing addition to your bakery, people.  I can’t say this enough.  Cookies?  Cookies are my passion, and I swear to God, they are so much better with a little lard.  (To start, I usually substitute two tablespoons of lard for the same amount of butter.)  Any cookie I make with lard behaves beautifully in the oven and retains its character for longer than I could ever hope for.  What’s more, the flavors deepen over time while the cookie still tastes fresh.  And pie dough?  In combination with some butter, well, it’s so amazing, I can’t even say.  If you have a hard time finding it, check your ethnic grocers or, failing that, the closest butcher.

Shortening.  This stuff’s not only for greasing your pan.  Where I prefer to use lard, you may prefer to use shortening, although I hope it’s because you’re a vegetarian and not because you think shortening is healthier.  It is not.  It does an admirable job, however, keeping soft cookies soft long after they’re cool, and makes for some damn flaky pie crust.  Plus, it’s easier to find than lard.  (Personally, I can really taste butter-flavored shortening, even in small quantities.  But your people may love it, so give it a shot, if you like.  Some bakers do swear by it.  Otherwise, the plain white kind is great.)

But whether you choose shortening or lard when your recipe calls for it, it’s important that you think not of the fat, but of the flavor.  As I’ve insisted, the health claims against fat are rather dubious anyway.  Remember instead the very real fact that you just don’t eat this stuff every day.  So don’t fuck around, people.  Use fat.

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