When I learned that Hungarian home cooks kept jars of zsèr—a blend of rendered bacon fat and minced cracklings—by their stoves, I knew the SAVEUR test kitchen was in for a good time. Though modern cooks are often turned off by the idea of lard, rendered pork fat improves all sorts of foods if given a chance, and the soft, flaky texture it lends pastries is unbeatable. Lard is a traditional cooking fat in many cultures, so there are plenty of variations, each with different strengths in the kitchen. Here's a guide to the most common types.
Manteca Pura: This caramel-colored Mexican-style lard, made by rendering pork fat, lends smoky depth to everything it touches. It's great for frying eggs, sautéing greens, or cooking any dishes that call for quick pan-frying. Mixed with flour, paprika, and sour cream, it adds a meaty boost to Hungarian bean and ham soup.
Armour Lard: The pork fat most commonly found in U.S. supermarkets is pearly white and shelf-stable with a mild flavor. It has a high smoke point of around 400 degrees that makes the hydrogenated block well-suited for deep-frying the Hungarian braised and fried pork spareribs.
Leaf Lard: This delicate, neutral-tasting fat from around the pig's kidneys is especially prized in the pastry kitchen, where it yields tender crusts. It's our top pick when baking fruit pies and beef empanadas.