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When I was in cooking school one of my teachers was Chef Ted. A tall, imperious and at times stern mentor, Chef Ted possessed superior cooking skills and an extensive fund of culinary knowledge. I learned many things from him, particularly culinary organizational skills and planning. One of his quips that I will never forget was: "All flavor in food comes from fat and salt." With the exception of sugar, he was largely correct. Think of all the foods that taste really good. Inevitably that are fattening, salty or sweet. For the purposes of the present discussion I wish to focus on fat, with emphasis on its benefits. Benefits of fat? Did he just say the benefits of fat? That's practically heresy in our modern health-crazed culture. Well before you raise the fat and heart disease fears let's get something straight. I'm a chef, not a nutritionist. I'm about to embark on the pros and cons, (mostly pros), of fat from a culinary perspective. If your concern is your cholesterol level then I'm sorry but you have the wrong number. Allow me to transfer you to the department that handles that. Give me your number in case we get disconnected……….. Click…………beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
Fat and Flavor
The first and foremost benefit of fat, as touted by Chef Ted, is flavor. Much to the chagrin of dieters everywhere, fat tastes good. Ice cream, cheese, a juicy steak, avocados, bacon, foie gras, mayonnaise-laden salads, and butter on anything are all testaments to the sapidity of fat. How do we liven up an insipid baked potato? With sour cream and cheese of course. Is your pureed vegetable soup lulling your taste buds to sleep? Wake them up with a jolt of cream. Want to bring the lackluster steamed broccoli back to life? Add some butter baby. And if you’re like me and prefer decadence squared, dollop some béarnaise sauce on your steak. Yes, there’s no getting around it. Fat tastes good.
But as if that wasn’t enough, fat not only tastes good in and of itself, fat also promotes the transmission of other flavor components. Many aromatic agents, e.g., herbs and spices, are fat soluble. This means their chemical constituents are dispersed and released best in a lipid medium. Fat provides the backdrop by which other tasty compounds can be enhanced and rendered more available to our eagerly awaiting taste buds.
Flavor and succulence is why fat is one of the principle determinants in the grading of steak. There are many who believe that extra-lean meat is the highest quality but the reality is the opposite. When it comes to steaks, the greater the intramuscular fat or marbling, the higher the meat is graded. This is because a well marbled steak will be tenderer, juicier, and more flavorful. The highest grade of steak is prime. Prime steaks will be distinctly laden with veins of fat running through the meat. Meat graders are gourmands, not cardiologists.
But meat is by no means the only venue where flavor and succulence are enhanced by fat. The richest and most deeply satisfying cheeses are ineluctably higher in fat, (or salt). Think of the magnificence of a quality French brie as compared to low-fat slices of American processed cheese. Likewise with milk, cream, butter, ice cream, and virtually any dairy product. The higher the fat content, the richer the taste.
Meat and dairy products rely on saturated fat. But even the heart-friendly fats, (polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, etc.), are munificent to our palates. Can you even imagine a salad, bruschetta, focaccia bread, tapenade, certain pâtés, breadcrumb stuffings, and countless other appareils devoid of olive oil? Or a delicious Asian dish deprived of the last minute drizzling of sesame oil? Remove the hefty dose of monosaturated fat from avocados and the result would be unidentifiable.
More Fat Benefits
But the benefits of fat don’t stop at flavor. Fat is indispensable in the creation of numerous concoctions. Try making pastry dough without butter, lard, or at least vegetable shortening. Or pizza dough without olive oil. Sure, you can make dough from just flour and water. That’s fine if you’re making wantons. But for sweet or rich pastries, biscuits, or even a roux, fat and flour are an imperative marriage made in culinary heaven. You can’t even make mayonnaise without egg yolks and some form of oil; not real mayonnaise anyway. Likewise, whipped cream can only be made from heavy cream. Anything less, (light cream, half & half, etc.), won’t whip because the fat content of these cream-impersonators isn’t high enough.
Fat is also essential for a number of cooking techniques. By definition, you couldn’t sauté, pan-fry, or deep fry anything without fat. In sautéing, the fat coats the pan to inhibit sticking, facilitates the browning of the food, and again, adds flavor and richness to the final product. And unless you like your food stuck to your grill, you better grease the grates with some kind of fat.
When to Limit Fat
Thus far I’ve espoused the glories of fat. However, there are times when we want to limit it. We trim meats of excess fat before cooking. Even too much of a good thing can sometimes be a hindrance. When producing a stock, you skim the fat that rises to the surface, employ a fat separator, or remove the congealed fat from the top of the finished, refrigerated stock. As wonderful as fat is, a greasy stock is not desirable. Similarly, after sautéing an item, it is sometimes necessary to pour out the excess fat from the pan before proceeding with producing a pan sauce. A greasy sauce is as icky as a greasy stock.
Finally, as much as I hate to admit it, there’s even a time when it’s absolutely vital to have no fat at all, namely when whipping egg whites. After separating the eggs, if even a trace of the yolk remains, the fat in the yolk acts like a buffer between the protein strands in the whites, thus inhibiting their whipping.
So there you have it, solely from a culinary perspective, the good, the bad and the ugly about fat. One of the most maligned substances in our food-neurotic culture, fat is also one of the most crucial elements in cooking. Each person must make their own decision about the role of fat in their lives based on their individual feelings. But if your heart lies in the culinary realm, with a passion for food and epicurean delights, then fat is where it’s at.