Fats to Cook With
“Fat gives things flavor” – Julia Child
At one point in time, Americans vilified fat and removed as much of it as possible from our diets. We now know that healthy fats don’t make us fat or unhealthy and that fats play a vital role in our absorption of certain vitamins and the satiation of our hunger.
Each fat has a “smoke point,” which is the point at which the fat breaks down and begins to smoke. You lose both flavor and health benefits when this happens, so knowing each smoke point means you can preserve all the good qualities of your fat. Because these smoke points vary, you’ll use fats differently depending on what you’re cooking and the level of heat involved.
Butter and Ghee
You may not cook much with butter, but short of serious medical conditions, you should keep high-quality butter around. Real butter is better (healthier) than fake butter, which is usually made with hydrogenated oil.
Ghee, on the other hand, is a cooking delight. Ghee is just the fat of butter that’s been slowly cooked over low heat until the milk solids separate from the fat and turn slightly brown. The milk solids are drained away, and the remaining butter fat is left with a slightly nutty flavor. Despite being pure butter fat, ghee is quite healthy. Ghee has a high smoke point, meaning you can cook it longer and at higher heat before it begins to break down. You wouldn’t fry with it because it’s not cheap.
There’s a huge world of olive oil, and this email can’t explain it all. What you need to know is that it’s a medium smoke point oil, so it’s OK to use for basic sauteeing but not frying. There’s also two very basic types: virgin and extra virgin. Extra virgin is much lighter and fragile than virgin, although the caloric content is the same. Extra virgin is best used for dressings and drizzling (raw usages). Virgin can be considered an “everyday” olive oil, since you’d also cook with it.
Store olive oil away from the stove and in a dark bottle to keep it from going rancid (bad and bitter). It is not a neutral oil, meaning it has a distinct flavor, so you’ll have to be deliberate with how you use it. Anything used with olive oil will taste like olive oil.
Recently, the olive oil industry showed a rancid side (get it?) when it was revealed that most of the oil imported into the US isn’t really olive oil. There are some seals and certifications you can look for to ensure you’re getting the real thing.
With its strong flavor, you may not use coconut oil that much. It does, however, work well for baking. There’s pros and cons to the health benefits, and I mainly use it topically to remove my makeup.
None of these have stellar health benefits, but with the exception of canola and grapeseed, these oils are great for frying because of their high smoke point and neutral flavor. Since most of us won’t fry on a daily basis, you won’t harm your health by having one of these around for the occasional fry. I recommend peanut or safflower oils.
When discarding oil, let it cool and pour it into a disposable container. Then throw away the container (unless your area has specific instructions for discarding oil). Whatever you do, don’t pour it down the sink.
With any oils produced from a plant, take extra care to purchase “cold-pressed,” especially if it’s an oil you plan to use frequently. This means the extraction process didn’t use chemicals or heat, just old-fashioned pressing methods to squeeze out the oil. This is the best method for preserving the health benefits.
Tomorrow, we’ll get into techniques for changing the texture of food.
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