There are vast cultural differences in how fat is perceived. It can be a touchy subject on a lot of different levels. I am not making any attempt to pass judgment, just to acknowledge that fat is a building block of all food and a major determinant of flavor. Fat is essential to our survival. It provides back up energy and energy storage. It is necessary for nutrient absorption, brain growth and neurological development.
There is nothing unhealthy about cooking with moderate amounts of fat, especially plant based, but it is important to be informed about the quality of your fats and how to make selections. The highest levels of environmental toxins are stored in animal and seafood fat. The fat in crab, while prized by some as the best tasting part of the crab, is exactly where toxins collect. It is the part that is tested for domoic acid to determine if crab is safe to catch.
Let’s take a look at a few facts about fat that might be useful.
There are many sources of fat; seafood, animal and dairy products, olive oil, nut and seed oils as well as coconut and palm oils.
Fat takes on many roles in our cooking. It can be the ingredient, the cooking medium for the ingredient or the seasoning of the ingredient. It makes pastry flakey and tender. It creates flavor, texture and eye appeal. Think golden brown and crunchy – right? Fat circulates and carries flavors. When you taste a dish that has all the ingredients in place but doesn’t quite come together, that dish usually needs fat. Fat makes connections and marries things up. It coats and covers as well. Spicy and bitter flavors can be tamed by fat.
Animal fat defines the distinct flavor of an individual meat. Lamb fat, to me, is more “lamby” than lamb meat and that comparison can be made with other fat and meat. Again, fat carries flavor in a big way. Fat is an important component in sausage, not only for moisture but for flavor. Lean cuts of meat can be larded or barded, meaning fat is used to cover or be inserted into the meat while it cooks. Rib eye steaks are often a favorite of meat lovers because the cut is well marbled with fat which bastes the meat from within, adding flavor and moisture.
Because of their diet, grass fed animals have less fat and the advantage of Omega-3 fatty acids in the meat. Ruminants that are raised on pasture alone produce meat, milk and butter that are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids as well as conjugated linoleic acid. CLA in recent research has been shown to reduce cancer risk. Care must be taken not to overcook grass fed meat because it contains less fat.
In selecting meat – poultry, eggs, fish – food in general, if possible, purchase from a vendor you trust. That piece of advice holds true for all food purchases. Knowing and trusting a rancher, a farmer or a merchant who deals with a local producer is truly your best insurance of obtaining high quality, fresh food. You are supporting your local economy and your local food shed. (This is a topic for another blog!)
You can also do some research yourself. There are selection guidelines provided by The Animal Welfare Institute, the USDA, Humane Animal Care and the Food Alliance to name a few. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and Chef’s Collaborative are good choices to learn about seafood selection.
Butter is a common cooking fat across many cultures. It is widely used as a cooking and flavoring element. In addition to fat, butter contains milk proteins and whey solids. Brown butter sauce or “beurre noisette”, a delicious sauce for eggs, fish and vegetables, is produced by heating butter and allowing those milk proteins to toast or become browned.
Clarified butter is made by melting butter over low heat until the whey proteins rise to the top and milk proteins fall to the bottom. The resulting liquid can be skimmed and strained to produce 100 percent fat. This clarified butter now has a high smoke point and can be used for frying where it imparts its delicious buttery flavor. Ghee, frequently used in Indian cooking, is clarified butter that has been cooked at a little higher temperature to brown the milk solids and add a nutty flavor. Ghee also has a high smoke point and can be used for frying. There is good grass fed butter available locally as well as high quality imports from France and Ireland.
Nut and seed oils show up in all cultures for cooking and flavoring. Many of these oils like peanut, avocado and grape seed are neutral in taste and have a high smoke point making them useful for frying and crisping. Specialty seed and nut oils like sesame, pumpkin seed, walnut and hazelnut are primarily used as flavoring or finishing oils. Coconut oil boasts a high smoke point but also adds distinctive flavor to pastries or curried dishes. Coconut oil is unusual in the vegetable oil category because it is solid at room temperature. Remember to seek it out when you need to prepare pastries or dishes for lactose-intolerant friends. Again, ask questions and do your research on how and where the oils were produced. Generally you are looking for cold pressed or expeller pressed oil and wanting to avoid oils that are hexane treated. Read your labels.
Olive oil, historically produced throughout the Mediterranean, enhances the flavor profile of Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Greek and Middle Eastern cooking. The health benefits of olive oil have been widely acclaimed with good science to back up those claims. It is impossible to conceive of any of the above cuisines without the signature flavor of olive oil. As with other fats, information on making choices is important. Here are a few pointers when you are choosing olive oil:
- Oil should be stored or packaged in a container that protects it from light. Steel containers, dark bottles or a bag in a box all keep light from damaging or oxidizing the oil.
- Extra virgin should be noted on the label. An estate name or region of production can also be identified and is generally an indication of quality. Pure olive oil or light olive oil labels always indicate that oil has been highly refined and processed.
- Oil color is not an indication of quality. Good oil can be green to gold to straw in color depending on olive variety and harvesting practices.
- Quality Olive oil should have a harvest date noted on the bottle. A “best by” date is the next best option. Olive oil is a fresh, perishable product and should ideally be consumed within a year of the harvest date.
- The California Olive Oil Council provides chemical and sensory analysis of California produced olive oil in order to certify quality. Look for their seal on your Olive Oil bottle or package.
- Extra Virgin Alliance is a non profit organization that certifies olive oil quality and provides a “Mark of Quality and Authenticity”. Look for their seal on your Olive Oil bottle or package.
- USDA organic or CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers confirm that the olives were produced within their organic standards. Look for their seal on your Olive Oil bottle or package.
- Some terms such as “first pressed” and “cold pressed” have become anachronistic. Most extra virgin oil currently is made with centrifuges. It is not “pressed” but Extra Virgin does mean that it comes exclusively from the first processing of the olive paste.
As we discussed above, like all fresh product, there is significant advantage to purchasing from a trusted local source. McEvoy Ranch olive oil comes to you fresh from the ranch – not from a container ship:
So – know your fats. Use them to enhance your food and enjoy the health and flavor benefits they provide.