Let us start with the fact that lard simply has more negative connotations associated with the word itself than shortening. “Lard” brings to mind phrases like, “lard-ass,” conjuring up unpleasant images of overweight people and just pure fat itself.
That being said, because lard has been around much longer than shortening, and is the “original product,” many do prefer the former to the latter. Let’s check out the difference between, and subsequent pros and cons of both.
- Lard: the rendered fat of hogs, especially the internal fat of the abdomen
- Shortening: butter, lard, or other fat, used to make pastry, bread, etc.
Although shortening has a bit of a wide definition, for all intents and purposes we are talking about vegetable shortening here, the most common type. Crisco is certainly the best known brand of shortening.
Both lard and shortening:
- Are used as types of fat in baking
- Are known for extremely high fat contents
- Have a similar to consistency to room temperature butter
The short answer to the difference between the two is that lard is derived from pigs, while shortening comes from the same things that vegetable oils do – vegetables or plants. Given that lard comes from animal fat and shortening plants, one would think that shortening would be healthier, but this is not necessarily so.
Slate.com was the biggest cheerleader of lard I found, explaining that not only is not as bad for you as shortening is, but in fact one could even argue it is healthy. The author points out that lard would probably be better received by the public if it were renamed “bacon butter;” I believe this to be true.
Side note: I once wrote a piece (that I don’t have the patience to find and link to right now) on foods whose names were successfully changed to make them more appealing. The list included rapeseed oil transforming into canola oil, dolphinfish to mahi-mahi, prunes to dried plums, and for a time some were attempting to rebrand high fructose corn syrup as corn sugar. Surely, if lard was changed to bacon butter, the results would be immediate and positive for lard enthusiasts.
Regina Schrambling, author of the piece on Slate.com, insists that shortening is more of a health hazard than lard, because it contains trans fat, while lard consists of mostly monounsaturated fat. But, “More importantly. . .your great-grandmother surely cooked with it, so you should, too.”
Crisco came about in 1911 (while lard has been around for centuries). During the 1950s and 1960s, health experts connected animal fat with coronary heart disease, ensuring the rise in popularity of vegetable shortening being used over lard.
It is difficult to say which one is preferred in present times, although I would bet to guess it is lard, and this is why: Consumers are more educated about food today than they used to be. The purchasing of “natural” food is on the rise, and lard certainly fits into that category. Amusingly, Schrambling says, “Lard is about the last stop before the squeal when pork producers are extracting every savory bit from a pig.”
However, she recommends buying lard from a farmer, compared to a supermarket, because lard from a grocery store tends to be hydrogenated to make it last longer. (Vegetable shortening, or Crisco anyway, is already hydrogenated.)
So, lard is more natural and conceivably more nutritious than shortening. What about that flaky texture both are supposed to give to our baked goods? And how about the taste?
Although there are undoubtedly exceptions, there seems to be a general consensus that lard produces flakier pastries than shortening does.
However, I have found conflicting reports on the difference in flavor.
My tie breaker for this one is Food52.com, whom I use frequently and trust their information entirely. They have a great article on different fats in pie crusts, where it is concluded that lard is flavored while shortening is not.
Therefore, we can safely assume that lard is the favorable choice in most cases over shortening. Unfortunately, it is difficult to get lard in the form it should be, as nearly all or absolutely all grocery store lard is hydrogenated.
If you are looking to not add a fatty flavor to foods (for example, with icing) than shortening would probably be the better option. Also, shortening can be used for gluten-free dishes while lard cannot.