In one of the most memorable scenes in the history of NBC?s ?The Office,? Dwight attempts to convince his co-workers of the virtue of roasting the goose he has just run over with his car. As an added bonus, he adds, ?you can use the molten goose grease and save it in the refrigerator, thus saving you a trip to the store for a can of expensive goose grease.?
Sadly, Dwight?s cursory mention of his hypothetical goose grease is all too representative of society?s attitudes toward fat. In fact, many Americans? opinions on food are still driven by fatphobic nutritionists of the 1970s.
Most people generally avoid talking about fats, and it is considered unhealthy and unfashionable to enjoy eating them.
Nevertheless, fats are an essential part of one?s diet, and they do a number of things to make the food we eat more delicious.
One reason fat is so important to cooking is that it is almost impossible to brown food without it. Browning creates a number of different flavor compounds and generally improves the flavor of foods, but it takes temperatures of 250 degrees or more for browning to occur.
Unfortunately, water can only reach 212 degrees, which is why it is impossible to get those beautiful grill marks on your steak using, say, a bamboo steamer. Fats, on the other hand, can reach a red-hot 450 degrees without batting an eye ? something useful in the browning of all foods, not just fried fare. Because they are liquid at high temperatures, fats assist in the conduction of heat to lightly oiled roasts and saut?ed onions the same way they brown donuts and mozzarella sticks.
An important property to a fat?s browning ability is its smoke point, or the temperature at which it starts to burn. Oils with higher smoke points are better for frying because cooks can heat them to higher temperatures without burning food. Generally, the more refined and the less saturated the fat, the higher the smoking point. Thus, extra virgin olive oil, the canonical example of unrefined oil, burns at a much lower temperature (around 320 degrees) than the heavily processed ?extra light? olive oil (around 470 degrees). For a more complete list of smoke points of various fats, interested readers should check out cookingforengineers.com.
Besides browning, another way fats add flavor to foods is by their mere presence.
One example of this is flavored oil, a substance that capitalizes on the fact that fats are incredibly talented at taking on flavors of herbs and spices. Basil oil, chili oil, rosemary oil and a host of others are a joy to consume with no other accompaniment than a hunk of good country bread.
Some fats, on the other hand, offer an appetizing flavor and texture entirely their own. Butter and olive oil are two obvious examples of flavorful fats Americans enjoy on a daily basis, but there are a host of others, particularly animal fats, with qualities that make foods tastier.
One of these is lard, a term that encompasses all pork fats. In addition to making bacon taste fantastic, pork fat creates flaky pastry crusts, and its flavor is essential in creating an authentic tamale.
Another tasty fat that has appeared in one of America?s favorite foods is beef tallow. Until 1990, McDonald?s used a healthy portion of beef fat in preparing french fries. The animal fat was so key to the fries? flavor, though, that the company now includes ?natural beef flavor? made of ?wheat and milk derivatives? in its fries.
Oddly, of all animal fats used in our nation?s cookery, the ones we use the least have the lowest saturated fat content and are considered by some to be the most delicious in the world: poultry fats.
Schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, is familiar to fans of Jewish-American cuisine, but few in this country cook with duck or goose fat. This is puzzling, especially considering that many foodies consider these two to be among the world?s top cooking media. For example, the venerable food writer Jeffrey Steingarten once said of France not that it was a magical land of baguettes and cheese but ?an earthly paradise of goose and duck fat.?
Steingarten would surely have come to Dwight?s defense when the latter mentioned the possibility of post-roast goose grease.
Because of their browning capabilities and inherent flavors, it?s clear fat plays an important role in cooking. However, I regret that I have not been able to give an exhaustive discussion of fat?s glories.
In the interest of space, I have omitted such fascinating anecdotes as the role of margarine in feeding the poor masses in 19th century France and the seemingly alchemical process by which oil and water throw down their guns and mix to make one of America?s favorite condiments, mayonnaise. I have given a criminally short treatment of butter and all the wonderful things that result from it: from sauces like beurre blanc to ghee. Finally, I have essentially ignored all the health risks and benefits associated with various kinds of fats.
Nevertheless, in spite of all these regrettable omissions, I hope I have managed to convey at least some of what fats do to make our food delicious. They are some of the most remarkable ingredients in the world?s kitchens, and they deserve respect, not scorn.
Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and history. You may contact him with questions, complaints, lists of effective cholesterol medications and duck fat coupons at [email protected]