Thursday, February 10, 2011

Greasing the gears

The trend has been ongoing now for quite a while that fat is bad, that we are inundated with the stuff in just about everything we eat and that we should cut down on it as its making us morbidly obese.

Now I'm not going to start a long debate on the merits and dangers of fat, you can do that on your own time; all I'm going to say is that you need it. Plain and simple, the Mediterranean diet is all well and nice, and those folks may well have the lowest rate of heart disease on the planet, but lest be honest, we don't live there, we don't have that climate and we don't have access to the same food supplies. Since most of us live in a more northern climate, a certain amount of heartier foods is required to allow us to get through several months of ice and snow.

I will deal with fat by dividing into two categories, based on their origins: animal and vegetable. Some cross-breeding is possible and in some cases inevitable, but if there is one staple you should have in your pantry, its a good supply of some form of cooking fat.

Animal fats

The one most likely to be known and to be on hand would be good old butter. It has the distinct advantage of being easily available and to also provide its own flavor. It can be handled in a variety of ways to become even more interesting and does wonderful things to mushrooms and mashed potatoes; however, it is a bit on the expensive side, with the price of dairy going up, and has a low smoking point, so it has its limitations for cooking.

Ghee is the Indian version of clarified butter. Butter contains a portion of water, which is what causes the low smoking point; when it is clarified, it is heated to the point where water separates from the milk solids, leaving ghee. One of the great advantages of ghee is that it is designed for cooking, so it doesn't burn easily. It also doesn't require refrigeration, so that you can keep it in the pantry with no fear of going to waste, a great advantage to those with small fridges. It is somewhat harder to find, tho not impossible, and runs the same price range as regular butter.

You could also use a variety of rendered animal fats, like lard, suet or duck fat. Lard is the easiest to find, usually sold in block or tubs in the pastry supplies section of grocery stores. While lark is the rendered fat of pork, suet is the rendered fat of beef. It is far less common, most commonly used to fry foods, often french fries. Other rendered animals fats, like poultry as duck or goose fat is not so much rare as it is expensive; the secret of Belgian french fries is that they are cooked in goose fat. A more available poultry fat comes from chicken, as schmatlz, a staple of Jewish cooking.

Of course, without buying rendered fat you could just use chunks of cured meat fat, most likely pork as a flavor additive. Most bean dishes are greatly enhanced by the presence of cubes of back bacon or pork belly; when you trim your meat, dont throw the scraps away. Most of it is fat that can be rendered and reused, so just keep a zip bag or tub in the freezer to gather all that deliciousness for later use.

Vegetable fats

There are two forms of vegetables fats: oil and some sort of shortening.

The most important oil a cook can have is olive oil. I dont know what varieties are available in your area, but around here, its mostly extra virgin, cold pressed. None of that just-basic-plain-old olive oil. Now, what does that really mean anyways, extra virgin and cold pressed? It indicates the methods used to extract the oil from the fruits: cold pressed means that they use a slow weight method, preventing the fast machines that would heat and render the oil bitter. Extra virgin means that this is the first press; yes, many places will press the fruits a few times to get as much of the oil out.

All this doesn't mean that you have an especially good product, or that all oils are the same, far from it. Depending on the country and region of origin, you can get either really strong or light flavors, texture and colors. What you want to do is start with one of those large cans of basic extra virgin for your cooking, and a small bottle of the nice stuff for salad dressing and that little touch at the end that give that extra kick of flavor. ou'll have to try a few to find the one that works, and then stick to it.

Peanut oil is a very useful kind to have around if you want to fry things, especially if you plan of doing a more Asian type of menu. Its smoking point is pretty high; in fact nut oils are the highest in the smoking rating, so they are the most forgiving if you lose track of the pans and you dont feel like meeting your local firemen on a regular basis. It is more expensive than general vegetable oil, but it does a better job, in my opinion.

Other types of vegetable oils exist, like corn, sunflower or canola. They are all described as being fantastic, but I have yet to be convinced, since that a lot of that comes from the agro-lobby that really needs the subsiddies to buy their yatch. Canola is possibly the least offensive of the lot, and I've only had bad experiences with the others. Use at your own judgment.

Of course, there is just vegetable oil. It is a blend of different sources, most usually soy and corn, tho cotton seed is also common. It has the advantage of being cheap, easily available and comes in large bottles. Its not the worst choice for when you need a neutral oil, like when you need to fry some scalopini in a pan; it would be problematic for those allergic to peanuts, and expensive to use olive oil (besides the joys of cooking in a greasy cloud). It also comes in handy in certain baking preparation, like muffins and cupcakes. Not a bad all-purpose deal there for the cash- and space-strapped.

Ghee also comes in vegetable form, if for whatever reason you cant or wont use the dairy version. My main issue with that version is that there is not details of the composition of the oil blend, and contain additives, like extra vitamins. Not a bad idea overall, and its still a handy vegan option if you want to fry certain things.

There are other oils that, because of costs, availability or flavor are more appropriately used as seasoning agents, like sesame or truffle oil. There are other varieties, but for now, I'll stick with the overview of the basic fats and will come back to the flavor agents at a later date.

I have avoided margarine and shortening until now, for a very simple reason: if you need a degree in chemistry to understand the content of the food product, then its not food. I have heard and read from proponents who all claim that the critics don't know what they're talking about, and that all those things are all perfectly safe to eat. But since that all those proponents are scientists with degrees, I think that I'll stand by my opinion and stick with the people that make food for a living, and not frankenstein hot dogs.

In coming posts I'll go into details on the different uses of those fats, and will be suggesting alternatives for the ethically minded, if applicable. In the meantime, add a reasonable amount of fat to your diet, it'll help everything else go down a lot easier.

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