Cooking with Fat

Let’s talk fat today.

No, this isn’t a weight or body image conversation. You’re beautiful the way you are, and you should eat what makes your mind and body feel good.

I’m talking about the fat we use for cooking – oils, animal fats, and the like. 

I love fat, as does most everyone on the planet. I eat and cook with different types of fat from different foods – both from plant and animal sources, both saturated and unsaturated fats. It’s delicious and necessary for building cells.

In the same way I love fat, I hate the way we demonize fat, especially in the States, and especially particular types of fat. This post is actually brought to you by recipe directions that enrage me. Allow me to paraphrase one I read recently:

Step 1: Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan.

Step 2: Add ground beef to the pan.

Step 3: Remove ground beef from pan, draining and discarding grease.

Step 4: Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan…

Let’s stop there. Ground beef is a fatty meat. It has its own fat. There is no need to add a different fat to a pan for something that will literally create its own lubricant, other than providing a very thin layer of oil to prevent initial sticking (not two tablespoons worth, mind you). And if you’re using nonstick cookware (or just being patient and waiting for your meat to cook long enough to unstick itself), the oil is superfluous.

This is the case for many meats, aside from super-lean types like skinless chicken breasts and the like. (And go ahead and get me started on the nonsense of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Another time, another post.)

We’re being told to add fat to a pan, to something that creates fat as it cooks, and then discarding the fat that we added and created. But Laura, you say, maybe the writer just doesn’t want “greasy” meat! I understand that, I suppose. But this particular step wouldn’t be so egregious if the next step did not include directions to add more fat to the pan

Not only are we throwing out perfectly good fat that we’re going to eat anyway, but we’re spending more money on different fat that doesn’t taste as good. (Fight me on that one.) I don’t like throwing out either of those things!

So, this week, I’m talking different kinds of fat, when and why to use them in your cooking, why you should stop worrying so much about fat, and what to actually worry about when it comes to fat. It’s gonna be delicious.

The Necessity of Fat

Let’s start with the health class basics.

We’re told all kinds of fun, flip-flopping information about nutrition and diet, especially in regards to fat. Fat has gotten a pretty bad rap in the past, and that legacy continues today in the form of low-fat foods in the grocery store, diets still touting their low-fat benefits, and a crippling fear of lard, butter, and grease.

But we need fat – fat protects our organs, builds cells, stores and gives us energy, and helps us process essential vitamins A, D, E, and K. We can’t make fat ourselves, so we must eat it. This is why fat tastes so good and why we crave it – we need it to survive.

On that note, fat is delicious. It adds a smooth texture to dishes and baked goods, makes cookies chewy and cakes fluffy, and balances out strong flavors (think: bitter greens with bacon fat) so those foods are more palatable. Leaving out fat when fat is called for makes you and your food sad (and probably burnt), so don’t deprive yourself of butter or oil now and then.

Let’s be clear: at no point am I telling you to eat bowls and bowls of lard, gobble down a thousand butter cookies, or deep-fry all of your food. Don’t do that. In the States, we have access to far more sources of fat (and sugar, and everything) than our bodies need, so moderation is key.

On the other hand, I don’t advocate nor practice calorie counting – it takes the joy out of eating, and pits us against our food. I do advocate eating as many whole foods as possible, cooking with said foods, and doing research as far as where our food comes from, including fat. 

Food, and fat at that, is not the enemy; it is persistent advertising of foods and non-foods that our bodies (and our wallets) don’t need. Let’s rethink the way we consider the fat we eat, use, purchase, and throw away, shall we?

Fat vs. Fat

That being said, for informational purposes today, and probably the only time I’m going to bother “calorie-counting,” I’ll be referring to this nutritional comparison of different types of commonly-used fats per tablespoon, thanks to this calculator:

Type of FatCaloriesFat (g)Sat Fat (g)Cholesterol (mg)Vitamins, etc.
Lard11513512Vitamin D (3% DV)
Butter105127.231Vitamin A (7% DV)
Bacon grease11712.95.112.3n/a
Olive Oil119141.90Vitamins E (6% DV) and K (10% DV)
Canola Oil1241410Vitamins E (8% DV) and K (12% DV)

The differences in calorie counts for each type aren’t that much different, as well as overall nutritional value; the major difference is, as you probably notice, saturated vs. unsaturated fat. Depending on how you’re trying to live your life, what you’re fighting, and what your doctor has told you, you’ll look at those numbers in different ways. (As a reminder, I’m not a doctor. Seriously. Just a writer, baker, and food nerd. This is not medical advice.)

I’ll talk a little bit about health in the next few sections, but again, I’m not about calorie counting or polarizing foods into categories of “good” and “bad.” I’ll mostly focus on why and when to use particular types of fat, and why you may want to rethink certain fats in your cooking.

The Whys (and Why Nots) of Unsaturated Fat

Let’s start with unsaturated fats. These are your plant sources of fat, and are liquid at room temperature. You probably have a bottle of vegetable oil somewhere in your kitchen, and likely a bottle of olive oil somewhere in there, too. These have a time and a place. 

Let’s start with health. It is still generally agreed by many health experts in the United States that limiting our overall fat intake is a good idea (20-35% of our caloric intake), given our generally high-fat diets, and that limiting our saturated fat intake is a better idea (less than 10% of our daily caloric intake). So, if you want to do this, using mostly oils as your fat sources might be the way to go.

Cool. So, fill up on all the nut and seed oils I can get my hands on, right?

You already knew the answer to that question. And I’m going to tell you why the answer is “no,” anyway.

Firstly, consider your sourcing: while the FDA advocates for us to eat more unsaturated than saturated fats, obtaining and rendering plant sources of oil is not exactly eco-friendly. Many nuts, fruits, and seeds are imported from thousands of miles away and require absurd amounts of water, land, and power just to meet our demand for oil.

(This is something to consider when you’re deciding between so-called plant “milks” and OG milk, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

And yes, this includes America’s sweetheart, olive oil. Since olives are probably not native, prolific plants in your area, or anywhere close to your area if you’re in the States, your olive oil requires carbon transport and manufacturing every step of the way. And if that’s not reason enough, olive oil is not the wonderfood you might think it is, but 30-40 years of advertising sure wants you to think so.

So, throw out your fancy oils? Pour out and protest olive oil? Not exactly: just quit touting it as some angel savior of fat, and quit eating so danged much of it. (Now I’m imagining a fat angel savior, and I hope you are, too.) Try to find sources of plant oil that are native and processed as close to where you live as you can.

When Should I Use Plant Oils?

This all being said, we here at the Walbacz house and the Crunchy Baker kitchens still use unsaturated fats in cooking and baking. I love butter and bacon fat, but they’re not great for cooking everything, or for everyone. (I’ve got you, vegetarian/vegan friends!) So, when do I use these fats, you ask?

  1. Deep frying and high-temperature cooking. When we do get the deep frying urge – say, for a bumper crop of okra – we use a vegetable oil with a high smoke point (the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke, that is). This means that we can crank up the temperature of the oil hot enough to fry foods without making them greasy, without compromising the taste of the oil or food. Many refined vegetable oils have a pretty high smoke point. Extra virgin olive oil and unrefined, delicately-flavored oils do not.
  2. Dressings, drizzles, and dips. We like using the fancy stuff in these applications. Got a fancy olive or unrefined walnut oil? Dip your bread in it, or coat your salad with a dressing made from it. Mmm.
  3. Neutral cooking and baking. When we don’t want the taste of butter, bacon, or lard to overpower a particular dish, we’ll use a neutral oil for sauteing, baking, or frying. I usually use neutral oil to coat my bowls for bread rises. And no, I don’t use it to brown meat, or anything that makes its own fat, because that’s silly.
  4. Cakes and baked goods that call for oil. There are olive oil cakes that taste amazing, and are moister than any butter cake. I love carrot cake, and it uses oil instead of butter pretty regularly. Oil is not unheard of in baking. But for the love of god, don’t replace butter with oil in a baked good because you’re told it will be “healthier.” It’s not. It’s cake. Cake is not meant to be healthy. You compromise the texture and taste of a baked good when you haphazardly replace butter with oil, so don’t.

The Whys (and Why Nots) of Saturated Fat

Mmmm, saturated fat. This is the flavored stuff, my friends, and, like unsaturated fat, has its time and place in our foods and cooking. These are fats that are solid at room temperature, and are usually from animal sources – butter, lard, bacon fat – but can also come from plant sources, like coconut oil.

So, again, let’s start with health. It’s still generally agreed that limiting saturated fat in our diet is a good idea. However, consider that recent studies have blurred the connection between heart disease and saturated fat intake. So if you’re worried about a little bacon grease or butter versus olive oil, consider doing further research, and ask a doctor or ten. (I’m not a doctor, remember?)

Aside from health reasons, consider your sourcing again: saturated fats as a whole should be, by nature, rare in the human diet. Think: you have to either kill an animal, domesticate and milk it, or render its milk into a fat source in order to get those delicious animal sources of saturated fat. These are all a lot harder to get than, say, picking and eating or rendering oil from walnuts for unsaturated fat. It makes sense that we don’t need as much saturated fat as is available to us today.

Long story short, practice moderation here, and don’t be afraid of a little saturated fat. Eat the danged butter cookie already.

Butter vs. Lard

This all being said, let’s talk about butter versus rendered animal fats, such as lard and bacon grease. (Obviously, if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, this is off the table for you, literally.)

So you’ve decided you’re going to continue eating some saturated fat. Good for you – this stuff is more delicious, and there’s nothing like vegetables cooked in fat versus vegetable (yes, even olive) oil. Still, everything in moderation.

Now, how about some lard pie crust? Refried beans with lard? Lard cookies?

No? Why are you running away?

I get it – lard is still a four-letter word, in both the literal and social sense. Many of us cringe at the thought of rendered animal fat – it’s bad for us! It’s saturated fat! It’s…LARD! We even use it as an insult (lardass!). But why are we so afraid of it? 

It’s all in the history, my friends.

For the longer version, go here. For the short version, we can thank Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for making Americans associate lard with horrible inhumane conditions in factories (and literal human fat-rendering), as well as Crisco’s advertisement and selling of their hydrogenated fat-balls (AKA shortening) in the early 20th century. 

In other words, it’s all about advertising. We demonize lard, but as you can see in the chart earlier in the post, lard actually has less saturated fat and cholesterol than butter. And no, it’s not being made from human and vat mishaps, especially if you’re getting it from a trusted source. We get ours from a local butcher, and it’s delightful.

lard

Bacon grease, lard’s cousin, is usually easier for the home cook to render and obtain, and has about the same amount of nutritional value and fat content as the other saturated fat candidates. It does have added sodium, but not even enough to register as a daily value unless you consume literal cups of it, and then you’d have bigger problems.

My point is, if you’re going to eat butter, and you’re going to eat meat, then don’t be afraid of lard – it is essentially the same nutritionally (with less cholesterol than butter), and it is a byproduct of animal processing, so it’s going to exist. If you’re going to eat meat, respect the animal – use everything you can, including the lard.

If anything else, lard makes a hell of a flaky pie crust and a pan of biscuits. Try it, and come back and see me. I’ll wait.

A note on shortening: Trans fats are shite. Period. The FDA doesn’t even classify them as GRAS (generally recognized as safe) foodstuffs, specifically the commercially hydrogenated versions. And there’s still enough trans fat in most shortening (.5 grams per tablespoon), despite what Crisco claims, to make me not want to use it, ever. Bleck. (It also has literally no taste. No thanks.)

When to Use Saturated Fats

So, when do I use butter, grease, and lard?

  1. Baked goods. I use butter in most of my baked goods, especially sweets; it imparts a delicate dairy flavor that cannot be replicated by oils and certainly not shortening. It makes moist cakes, browns and crisps up the outside of quickbreads, and just makes stuff taste good. I use it for either neutral or sweet applications.
  2. Lard for savory goods. Lard tends to have more of an animal-fat flavor (that is, it tastes a bit like pork), so I use it more in savory applications, like quiche crusts, biscuits, and frying vegetables. I’ll use bacon fat for frying and braising veggies, as well. Some people don’t mind the pork flavor in their sweet pies, and perhaps you’re one of those people.
  3. Frying and cooking. I’ll use both butter and lard or bacon fat for low-temperature or quick frying and braising, as well as coating pans for baking.
  4. Toast. Buttered toast. Come on. It’s delicious.

That about wraps it up for this fat talk, friends. Next time, I’ll show you how and why to save all of that bacon grease and frying oil you’ve probably been throwing out. You should stop doing that. Until then, happy cooking and baking!

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