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The best fat for the job


Fat Guy
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I was at a restaurant tonight where they serve olive oil with the bread. One of the people at my table asked for butter. I had a little bread with olive oil and then a little with butter. The butter was so much better it was shocking.

Now, I'm not saying this means butter is categorically better than olive oil. Surely there are places where olive oil is preferable. But it got me thinking about the best fats for various purposes, from spreading on bread to frying to garnishing finished dishes.

Given that I'm eating less and less fat, I'd like to make the best fat choices when I do eat it. So, can we generate some criteria and guidelines?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I almost hope we can't generate some criteria and guidelines. If a person prefers butter, eat butter. If a person prefers olive oil, eat olive oil. I really don't want it to come down to someone else telling me which I should prefer. I can figure that one out for myself.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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In that comparison, I think it would depend on the olive oil and it would depend on the butter, and it would probably also depend on the bread and how it went with either one.

Exactly. Even if you remove personal preference as a criteria (and that should be criteria #1), there are way too many variables to adopt a standard.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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So, can we generate some criteria and guidelines?

Like a chart with lipids and their characteristics as the x and y? Calories, smoke points, flavor, viscosity, etc. across the top and the type of fats and oils down the side? That would be interesting.

Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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Well, I think we can generate some somewhat objective criteria: for example, for spreading on bread you've got to have a fat that is spreadable or liquid at room temperature: butter, lard, olive oil, etc. You almost certainly want something with flavor: so not, say canola oil.

For frying, you have a clear temperature criterion: whole butter is tough to fry in for any length of time without constantly emptying the pan and using fresh butter. The fat you choose should, if flavorful, have flavors that complement the dish: I don't fry french toast in olive oil, for example. if you need very high temperatures, it should probably be something like grapeseed oil, with a high smoke point.

What other general uses of fats are there? Pie crust? Lots of recipes, but butter and lard are probably the two main contenders. What else?

Chris Hennes
Director of Operations
chennes@egullet.org

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But it got me thinking about the best fats for various purposes, from spreading on bread to frying to garnishing finished dishes.

Is "mostly fat" acceptable?

If so, I pick beef marrow for spreading on bread.

Who cares how time advances? I am drinking ale today. -- Edgar Allan Poe

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I like potatoes roasted with olive oil and herbs. But if you finish them with a knob of butter, they're even better. And I agree that poultry fat really brings out the best in potatoes.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Potatoes cooked in duck fat. Perfection.

I love potatoes cooked in duck fat. But.....I tried them with goose fat once, and goose fat won, hands down.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Way back Jeffrey Steingarten did a big french fry investigation and I think he ultimately ruled in favor of horse-kidney fat. Or at least he tried it.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Mexican food and lard. Specifically the lard I buy at the Mexican supermarket, the lard that I'm pretty sure comes from the frying of the chicharron. Makes for the best refried beans. Just like you wouldn't make pasta sauce with canola oil, I think it's all about the right fat for the dish.

Edited by thayes1c (log)
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Olive oil, butter, bacon fat, duck fat, lard, walnut oil, peanut oil: all great in their own way. Even Mazzola has its uses (I like it to pop corn.) But when it comes to plain yummy bread on the table before dinner, sweet butter (cooler than room temp) is my favorite. And I don't believe I would want plain white rice with olive oil and salt, but rice with butter and salt is deeply satisfying. I also have a soft spot for poultry fat on rice.

As for pie crust, I've had great pie crust made from all butter, part butter and crisco and part butter and lard. As far as I know I've never had a lard-only pie crust, but I'm sure spectacular ones have been made. I like fruit pies to have at least some non-butter shortening, but I like chicken pot pie crust to be mostly butter. Go figure.

I never use soybean, canola, safflower or sunflower oil. They taste a little like cotton to me. What are they used for?

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Roasted potatoes in duck fat are really good. I toss them in a cast iron pan with duck fat, maybe rosemary and/or thyme, coarse salt and pepper, and then into the oven, usually at whatever temperature the thing they are going with is cooking at, otherwise 450F.

Rendered bacon fat in a fruit pie crust is really good.

Beef fat is also good for deep frying French fries and other things.

I like a flavorful Hong Kong peanut oil for high temperature frying and stir fry (the brand I use is "Roxy," but this seems to be the name of the US importer, if I'm not mistaken).

Edited by David A. Goldfarb (log)
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I like potatoes roasted with olive oil and herbs. But if you finish them with a knob of butter, they're even better. And I agree that poultry fat really brings out the best in potatoes.

I stopped roasting in olive oil after reading THIS article by Harold McGee. I get better results with canola oil. Ran a bunch of tests for a restaurant that I did some consulting for, olive oil wasn't the best fat for roasting potatoes. (we had to stick with vegetable oils for this application) In the blind taste tests I ran, olive oil was consistently rated worst in flavor and texture of the potato.

I will say that choice of fats makes a huge difference in baking. Butter tends to make cakes dry, whereas oil in cakes gives a moist result. This is the secret to great pancakes; use a light oil (canola, vegetable, soybean) and extra egg to make moist pancakes.

But, this whole topic is about the basics of cooking anything: know your ingredient. Know as much as you can about all aspects of it. And, know as much as you can about every ingredient you add to it -as well as how that additional ingredient will interact with your original ingredient. With the addition of each item, you have to ask yourself if you fully know what you are doing, and, if what you are doing is the best possible course of action to maximize the potential of the original item. You also need to be able to accurately quantify your actions through the use of scales, thermometers, timers, refractometers, etc. IMO, this is the essence of modern technique.

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I think if you go to Spanish or Italian olive-producing regions - or ask people who grew up in them - you'll come back with very different results for preferences between oil & butter. And as David said, in the first place it will depend on the bread, the oil, the butter, the context and the diner.

Personally I've developed a taste for certain olive oils on certain breads in certain situations - it's easier to dip hand-torn bread into oil than to be fussing with a knife and butter for every bite. Then there's the wonderful habit I picked up from an Italian joint (Japanese owned and run, of course) in Koishikawa, to serve a plate of olive oil mixed with fresh grated parmesan for bread dipping, an approach that converts dairy-lovers by the dozen.

What to use neutral oils for ? There's a convention that good salad dressing is all about good oil; another convention says salad dressing should be an emulsion of 3:1, oil:vinegar. Your favourite and mine, doyenne of French food in the UK Elizabeth David poo-poo'ed that last, firmly in the good-oil camp and suggesting just a very little vinegar. For myself, 10 or more years ago I came across an excellent dressing in yet another Japanese-Italian restaurant, and some years in I plucked up the courage to ask how they did it - just oil, soy and grated onion, chef said. That didn't work, but experimenting I've found that ponzu rather than soy got very close, and recently by accident that men-tsuyu (a soy-mirin-sake-stock-sugar blend noodle dressing) closer still. The amount of onion is important, but one of the interesting things about this dressing - an element that I recognised from the start - is that it uses a light, neutral oil - I use canola because that's the light oil I stock, but in Japan, there's also "salad oil" which can be canola, sunflower, safflower etc., in a blend. Anyway - 'good' oil will mean different things to different readers, but here I've found a demonstration that you can just as well build good salad dressing around good-quality neutral oil and good-quality flavourings of your choice, as you can by relying solely on a carefully-sourced oil for richness and flavour, both.

Edited by Blether (log)

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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What to use neutral oils for ? There's a convention that good salad dressing is all about good oil; another convention says salad dressing should be an emulsion of 3:1, oil:vinegar. Your favourite and mine, doyenne of French food in the UK Elizabeth David poo-poo'ed that last, firmly in the good-oil camp and suggesting just a very little vinegar.

I was taught 5:1 "good" olive oil:vinegar (and the joke about being a spendthrift with the oil and a miser with the vinegar), except for balsamic vinegar, when the ratio should be 3:1. Now you have me wondering if one should vary the ratio according to the oil being used as well. Bacon fat emulsions seem to soak up quite a bit of vinegar before achieving the desirable tanginess for a vinaigrette, for example.

This is my skillet. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My skillet is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it, as I must master my life. Without me my skillet is useless. Without my skillet, I am useless. I must season my skillet well. I will. Before God I swear this creed. My skillet and myself are the makers of my meal. We are the masters of our kitchen. So be it, until there are no ingredients, but dinner. Amen.

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Slight over simplification but bread with oil is really a vehicle for the oil, butter is there to compliment the bread (unless it's really good butter).

But in general the popularity of the 'Mediterranean' diet has fooled people that it should be olive oil for everything, despite the fact that the dish from their favourite restaurant they are trying to replicate was probably started and finished with a hefty slab of butter!

I love animals.

They are delicious.

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Sesame oil (not the Chinese toasted kind for last minute flavouring, but the South Asian kind for cooking with) in dishes with tamarind in them.

Coconut oil (the good kind that really smells) in most dishes from Kerala.

Mustard oil in many many Bengali dishes.

Peanut oil for Maharashtrian dishes.

Ghee in as many places as possible. Especially for frying puris, loochis, etc. And jalebis. And in khichdi. And dal. And rice. And sabzi. And for adding at the table to any of the aformentioned dishes and more. Seriously, if the dish can be cooked in ghee then do it. And if another fat is more suitable for the cooking process then add a little ghee at the very end - so for instance mustard oil is used in the cooking process of shukto (a Bengali "stew" emphasising delicate bitter flavours) but a teaspoon of ghee at the end of the dish makes it sing.

Home-made white butter on top of sarson da saag and makki di roti...or on top of jowar roti...or on top of any roti.

Excuse me whilst I go off and eat something full of ghee.

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I was taught 5:1 "good" olive oil:vinegar (and the joke about being a spendthrift with the oil and a miser with the vinegar), except for balsamic vinegar, when the ratio should be 3:1. Now you have me wondering if one should vary the ratio according to the oil being used as well. Bacon fat emulsions seem to soak up quite a bit of vinegar before achieving the desirable tanginess for a vinaigrette, for example.

'Course it also depends what's in the salad. And in certain climates, an emulsion with bacon fat isn't a practical proposition in the first place...

When it's a simple green salad (a single variety of lettuce) with a classic vinaigrette, my taste falls in at the "very little vinegar" end of the spectrum, relative to either 1:3 or 1:5. I think people who quote ratios are aiming at scientifically pure emulsions, but in the kitchen I want to eat my food, not paint it.

QUIET!  People are trying to pontificate.

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If so, I pick beef marrow for spreading on bread.

Hi scoop, can you please run through how you would prepare bone marrow as a spread for bread?

My butcher will cut fresh beef bones to order. I can usually get a good sized bag of 1" chunks for under $10. Sprinkle with course salt and roast at 350F +/- until bubbly and cooked through, scoop out the marrow and spread onto sturdy toast. Parsley or chiver on top is nice.

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Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .

Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .

Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

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