'Out of Vermont Kitchens' A 1950s recipe book belonging to my step grandmother and including 'shortening' for Mince Meat Drop Cookies
Daydreams whilst binding cheddar: Post origins
Not an entirely cheese related post, except for the fact that making Lard Rubbed Cheddar got me onto the subject. A friend of mine was horrified that I would use lard and not butter to bind my cheddar. For anyone not familiar with the process, when making traditional cloth bound cheddar, one wraps it in cloth, much in the fashion of swaddling a baby, and then liberally rubs lard or butter into the clothe. When the cheddar is ready in 3+ months’ time, the cloth is removed and discarded. The butter, therefore, is wasted and therefore lard is a cheaper choice. It is interesting that we have developed a fear of lard and other animal fat derivatives as a nation. Cooking in lard is on the rise but still not enough.
Okay. I admit it too. Vegetable oil makes cooking easier. You can pour it on your fluffed up, par boiled roast potatoes, fry everything in it, or even cheekily use it to grease a cake tin. But I hate using it because it just feels wrong. It is a post 1900 invention and would not be recognized by our great-great grandmothers. It feels like a convenient cheat gone way too far. I know a lot of people, including me, use olive oil because it is healthier and tastier, but surely it is a waste to use good olive oil for frying in.
Cooking in fat
What did people fry in pre-1900 and how much improvement did it make to the meal?
Up to as late as the 1990s McDonald's fries were cooked in beef tallow. But customer demand for less saturated fat prompted a switch to vegetable oil.
When I was at school, our very brilliant teacher, Mr Clabburn, once made us eat bread and dripping in solidarity to a Victorian schoolchild’s lunch. We were all horrified, completely and utterly horrified, and he aborted the exercise quickly. I was disgusted at the grainy fat coating the bread thickly and the thought that this fat had been left out after someone’s roast dinner to cool in a big and slightly burnt pan. The whole thing made me cringe. But, dutifully, I ate my piece for the sake of historical re-enactment and went on my way, vowing never again.
But never say never. For the past week I have tried to cook solely with animal fats. It is a remarkably efficient way of eating because any trimming of fat left over from cooking I can keep for the next day. My roast dinner last night was divine because the chicken skin crisped up with lard rather than vegetable oil. My breakfast was bread and dripping. Not just delicious but also nutrient dense, keeping me going whilst I chopped wood outside.
In Mongolia, mutton and tallow (mutton fat) are used in every dish. The reeking smell of mutton fat sticks to your clothes and some say even the money is coated in a faintly oily finish. But it is delicious and keeps you going in Minus 30 conditions. There has been some move towards vegetable fat products, as illustrated by how many times I was duped into buying margarine, thinking it was butter that I strongly believe was not butter.
Health benefits of animal fat
So back to our fear of cooking in animal fats. There does seem to be an odd dichotomy here. Wrapping a sausage in bacon (pigs in blankets) seems okay to most carnivores, but frying up food in lard doesn’t. Apart from the traditional duck fat roast potatoes many enjoy at Christmas, it isn’t a common thing despite being a very affordable fat source. Tesco sells lard in its Everyday Value range for £1.56/Kilo. Tesco’s cheapest butter is £6.40/Kilo. Vegetable oil comes in at £1.15/Litre. However, the best and healthiest lard is homemade. Its simple and just means buying an organic cut of pork like bacon or pork belly and rendering it at home by slicing off the fat, cutting it up, and cooking it low and slow on the stove or in your oven. Lard from pasture raised pigs is high in Vitamin D, because they have been out in the sunshine, and the Vitamin D is then stored in their fatty tissue. Lard from indoor raised pigs has no Vitamin D, so making it or buying it from your local farmer is the way to go. 
There has been a massive rise in the popularity of lard in the foodie scene, but obviously not big enough- the sales of vegetable oils in British supermarkets are still going strong. A 2016 article in The Daily Mail entitled ‘Frying your food in LARD is healthier because vegetable oils release toxic chemicals when heated says new research’ may well be a good thing to get more people to move towards lard cooking.
Catering to all: postmodern diets
Another probably reason for eschewing animal fat is that veganism is on the rise and catering for everyone at once is easier than cooking three versions of some pastry. Making mince pies this Christmas I could make a lard pastry for the carnivores, a butter one for the vegetarians, and a vegetable shortening one for the vegans. Or I could just make it all with vegetable shortening. Easier, quicker, more convenient. Or I could make a lard pastry and not tell anyone, but that wouldn’t be cool. The pastry for the pasty at the popular British bakery chain Greggs contains: Wheat Flour, Vegetable Margarine and Shortening (contains: Palm and Rapeseed Oil, Water, Salt, Emulsifier: Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids), Water, Salt. Vegan, halal and Kosher it may be but it doesn’t sound very appetising.
The only way us Cholesterol pioneers can really change anything is to use lard and animal fat and leave the vegetable shortening and oil for the vegans. Another reason on the lardy side is that it comes wrapped in paper. No need for plastic.