Mexicans use a variety of fats and oils for cooking, depending on the dish, region, and personal preferences. However, the most common fats used in Mexican cuisine are:
Lard, or pork fat, is one of the most traditional fats used in Mexican cooking. Rendered lard is known as manteca in Spanish. Lard has been used for centuries in Mexico and provides a rich, savory flavor to many classic Mexican dishes like tamales, beans, and mole sauce. Lard is solid at room temperature and is often used for frying and cooking meats. Manteca de puerco (pork lard) is commonly used in central and northern Mexico.
Vegetable oils like canola, corn, and peanut oil are now commonly used for frying, sautéing, and baking in Mexican cuisine. Corn oil is a popular choice as corn is native to Mexico and has been used for centuries. Olive oil is sometimes used as well, although it is less common than other vegetable oils.
Bacon or Chorizo fat
The fat rendered from cooking chorizo sausage or bacon is another traditional cooking fat in Mexican cuisine. This flavored fat is known as grease de chorizo or grease de tocino in Spanish. It provides a smoky, spicy flavor and is often used for cooking beans, meats, potatoes, and eggs.
Lard vs Vegetable Oil
While vegetable oils are gaining popularity, lard remains an integral part of authentic Mexican cuisine. Here is a comparison of some of the properties of lard and vegetable oils:
|370°F – 400°F
|Rich, meaty flavor
|High in monounsaturated fat
|350°F – 450°F
|High in polyunsaturated fat
As shown, lard generally has a higher smoke point than vegetable oils, making it suitable for frying and sautéing at high heats. Lard also provides a more authentic, savory pork flavor. Vegetable oils have a more neutral taste and contain healthier polyunsaturated fats like omega-3s and omega-6s.
The predominant cooking fat used in Mexican cuisine can vary significantly by region:
Northern regions of Mexico like Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila rely more heavily on beef fat (sebo) and lard for cooking. Dishes feature more meat and beans which are well-suited to the rich, fatty taste of lard.
In central Mexican states like Puebla, Mexico City, and Veracruz, pork lard is also very common. Lard is used to prepare classic moles, stews, rice, and tamales from this region.
The southern region has a warmer climate and greater access to vegetable oils. States like Oaxaca and Chiapas use more vegetable oils and rendered chicken fat for cooking. Dishes from the Yucatan Peninsula reflect Caribbean and Guatemalan influences, with recipes relying on annatto seed oil and olive oil.
Seafood-centric areas like Baja California, Tamaulipas, and Veracruz use more vegetable oils and olive oil. The lighter flavors complement fish and shrimp dishes.
Common Mexican Dishes Using Lard or Bacon Fat
Here are some classic Mexican dishes that are traditionally prepared with lard or bacon fat:
Frijoles refritos are sautéed with lard or bacon fat which provides a rich, savory flavor. The meaty taste complements the creamy beans.
Tamales are a labor-intensive dish made with masa dough steamed inside a corn husk or banana leaf wrapping. Lard is essential for making the masa soft and pliable. It also gives tamales their characteristic moist texture.
These thick corn cakes are fried in lard to form a crispy exterior while remaining soft inside. Other meats like chorizo are also cooked in the fat to fill the gorditas.
To make juicy carnitas, pork shoulder or butt is braised then fried in lard. The melting lard bastes the meat, resulting in incredibly moist, tender carnitas.
Chicharrones are fried pork rinds or pork belly. Lard is central to achieving their crackling crunchy texture and intensified porky flavor.
These crispy, fried taquitos are rolled in corn tortillas. Frying them in hot lard gives flautas a perfectly golden, fried exterior.
For this popular breakfast dish, tortilla chips are sautéed with salsa verde or roja. Adding a bit of lard or bacon grease adds richness to the salsa.
Authentic Mexican Recipes Using Lard
Here are some classic recipes that rely on lard or bacon fat for authentic Mexican flavor:
Tamales Oaxaqueños (Oaxacan-style Tamales)
These rich, saucy tamales from Oaxaca are wrapped in banana leaves and rely on plenty of melted lard in the masa dough. The mole negro sauce also calls for lard.
Pozole is a hearty hominy and pork stew. Lard adds body and flavor to the red chile guajillo broth.
Tacos al Pastor
The marinade for tacos al pastor contains achiote, garlic, citrus and bacon fat. The bacon fat infuses the juicy pork with smoky flavors.
Chiles rellenos are made by stuffing poblano peppers with cheese then frying them in lard. This results in a crispy, fried coating contrasting the melted interior.
Tacos de Carnitas
As mentioned, carnitas are cooked in lard, making it mandatory for true carnitas tacos. The lard-basting gives carnitas their signature tenderness.
Sope with Chorizo
Sopes are small, thick corn cakes topped with beans, lettuce, cheese and meat. Chorizo is an iconic meat choice, giving sope diners a taste of flavorful grease de chorizo.
Health Concerns of Lard Usage
While lard usage is traditional in Mexican cuisine, it also carries some health concerns. Here are some things to consider:
High in Saturated Fat
Lard is nearly 40% saturated fat, while vegetable oils contain no saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake due to its associations with increased blood cholesterol levels.
Links to Heart Disease
Diets high in saturated fats from animal sources are linked to higher risks of cardiovascular disease. Using vegetable oils instead of lard can promote heart health.
With 115 calories and 13 grams of fat per tablespoon, lard is highly caloric and energy-dense. Replacing lard with oils can reduce excessive calorie intake leading to weight gain.
Sensitivity to Pork
Some people may be sensitive or allergic to pork. Using alternative fats allows more people to enjoy Mexican dishes.
Healthier Substitutions for Lard
For home cooks looking to reduce lard and bacon grease, here are some healthier substitutions:
Oils like canola, sunflower, safflower, or light olive oil have 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per serving. They provide less saturated fat.
With its mild flavor and high smoke point, avocado oil is an excellent choice for Mexican dishes. It is also rich in monounsaturated fats.
Coconut oil is a solid fat like lard but contains medium-chain triglycerides not found in animal fats. Use refined coconut oil to avoid a strong flavor.
Chicken or Duck Fat
Rendered chicken or duck fat provides a savory, meaty flavor for cooking. They contain slightly less saturated fat than lard.
Lard and bacon fat are integral components of authentic Mexican cuisine. They provide signature flavors and textures to dishes like tamales, carnitas, and refried beans. However, overuse of these saturated animal fats can have adverse health effects. Opting for vegetable oils, avocado oil, or other rendered fats can reduce saturated fat intake while still producing delicious Mexican food.
When it comes to fat, moderation is key. An occasional enjoyment of lard-cooked authentic Mexican dishes can be part of a healthy diet when balanced with other nutritious foods and fats. With some simple substitutions, cooks can also lighten up traditional recipes for improved nutrition.
There is no single correct fat for Mexican cooking – lard and vegetable oils both carry Mexican tradition in their own ways. Whether staying authentic or making modifications, the importance lies in savoring the rich culinary pleasures of Mexican cuisine.