I was recently in my friend’s kitchen, helping her to prepare a holiday meal. She told me that her son-in-law goes crazy for her mashed potatoes. The secret? She is generous about adding butter, heavy cream and sour cream as she whips the potatoes into fluffy goodness.
Her son-in-law had been accustomed to mashed potatoes that were very lean – just cooked potatoes and not much else. He came from a family that believed fat is bad, so his mother would add a miniscule amount of butter or margarine – maybe a tablespoon or two -- for a batch of potatoes that would serve ten people. The result was a starchy, somewhat dry, mostly flavorless concoction. He never knew he even liked mashed potatoes until he had the dairy-rich version my friend makes. Now, it’s one of his favorite holiday dishes.
We’ve been told that fat is bad. Countless recipes brag about being “low fat” or “no fat.” So, for decades now, taste buds and cooking habits have been conditioned away from fat, towards starch and sugar. This has affected flavor and texture. Here are some examples:
“Low-fat” gravy and bechamel recipes that are based on an almost-no-fat roux (is it even a roux at that point?), plus skim milk or no-fat stock. The taste and texture are pasty. Compare this to a traditional full-fat gravy made with a traditional roux (equal parts flour and butter), plus a bit of heavy cream. The full-fat gravy has an incredible mouth-feel, complex flavor, and it carries vegetables and meats to new heights.
Cake or muffin recipes that call for replacing the butter or oil with applesauce. The resulting texture is tough and gummy because there is no fat to tenderize. The flavor is flat, even if it is sweet. Compare this to cakes and muffins correctly made with the right balance of fat, sugar, and flour. They are moist, tender and absolutely delicious.
A “lean” pan-fry technique that uses a non-stick pan and almost no oil. Whatever is being sauteed sticks and burns from not enough lubrication and no buoyancy. The result is a dry, charred-tasting piece of chicken or lean meat. The cook would’ve been better off just poaching it in some stock or water.
People who cook without fat can tell themselves that, although the flavor might not be what they’d hoped, and although the texture is off, it’s all so much healthier, right? Then they dine at a quality restaurant and wonder why everything there tastes so much better than at home. The poultry or meat is just right – it’s moist and full of flavor, not dry and burned. The sauces that go with the meat and vegetables are balanced and unctuous. The dessert tastes like dessert should taste -- a great mouth-feel that is so much more satisfying than the one-dimensional-starch-from-a-box that calls itself “fat-free cookies.”
What’s the secret? You guessed it: fat. Restaurant chefs are not afraid of fat. They use it liberally. A friend of mine who has worked alongside famous chefs said that one of the reigning philosophies of the high-end kitchens he has cooked in is: “How can we fit one more stick of butter onto the customer’s plate?”
That’s an exaggeration, of course, but it partly explains why professional chefs turn out dishes that are superior in flavor to the largely-unexciting stuff that the average cook makes at home. Chefs know that quality fats carry a dish to sublime heights. That’s why they’ll pan-fry everything from fish to steaks, then finish a pan sauce with a healthy chunk of butter, or some heavy cream whisked in right before serving.
Chefs and experienced cooks also know that frying does not mean greasy. Fried foods, when done correctly, absorb very little of the oil they’re cooked in because the hot fat cooks and seals the outside, so the oil doesn’t seep in and permeate everything.
Maybe you have to be on a low-fat diet. If that works for you, stick to it. On the other hand, I know lots of people (myself included) who have lost weight by upping fat consumption and drastically reducing refined carbs and sugar. I’m not here to debate diet. I’m here to debate flavor and good cooking technique.
Fat is a flavor-carrier, as are alcohol and water. Different flavor molecules have an affinity for one or more of these carriers, and good cooks know how to play around to get the effect they want.
Take chocolate, for example. You can get intense chocolate flavor by mixing cocoa powder with hot water to “bloom” it. If you add sugar, it’ll be better, but nowhere near what it could be with fat. Now add fat, in the form of cocoa butter, coconut cream, heavy cream or full-fat milk, and you get something that is vastly better. It’s not even about the sugar. I have on my desk right now a Lindt chocolate bar 78% cacao (hey, it’s for the sake of research, okay?). One 30-gram serving contains 14 grams of fat, and 5 grams of sugar. That’s almost three times more fat than sugar. The high cacao-butter content is one reason this chocolate tastes so good – it carries the other flavors with it and gives a satisfying mouth-feel. It’s also the reason why ganache made with just heavy cream and dark chocolate is so irresistable. It’s not all about the sugar. It’s about the interaction between the fat and chocolate, with sugar playing a supporting role.
So my advice to home cooks is this:
1. Don’t be afraid of fat. Learn how to use it effectively. Study recipes from cooks who use it in a balanced way.
2. Don’t get fooled into thinking you can substitute non-fat ingredients in dishes that require fat. Yeah, I know you can find internet recipes that will claim you can make delicious (fill in the blank) with no fat, when the very essence of the dish is based on the presence of fat. Here’s the truth: You cannot make no-fat croissants, or no-fat mayonnaise or guacamole. Don’t even try.
3. If you must make a dish that is low-fat or no-fat, find a dish that is naturally this way. Examples: traditional artisan breads that contain no added fat, fish or chicken poached in broth, pureed fruits and fruit sauces, meringues, tomato salsa, etc.
4. Use quality fats such as animal fats (butter, tallow, bacon grease, rendered duck fat), and naturally-occurring plant-based fats such as olive, avocado, and coconut oils. Some reputable nutritionists recommend avoiding processed industrial fats such as cottonseed, corn and canola because they can cause inflammation in the body. I avoid them because I think they don’t taste good, and they behave weirdly (e.g., canola oil gets sticky).
5. If you are a carnivore, you can re-use the rendered animal fat that collects from pan-frying or simmering bone broth. Vegetables and potatoes sauteed in it are so flavorful. (My mother saved bacon grease in a bail-wire jar, and used that bacon grease to saute garlic and tomato paste when making Italian spaghetti sauce.) Simply strain the fat from your frying pan (or fat skimmed from the top of cold stock) through a fine-mesh strainer or coffee filter into a clean jar. Cap and store in the refrigerator. If you want to freeze it, store it in a plastic freezer bag.
Don’t be afraid of fat. It is an essential nutrient, and it is one of the flavor-work-horses of the kitchen. Used properly, it will take your cooking to new heights of deliciousness. Happy cooking!