This is serious business guys.
If you are someone who finds themselves (frequently) climbing on chairs to turn off the fire alarm in your kitchen, this is the post for you. If you were simply just too distracted by the addition of “Mind of a Chef” on Netflix, I can’t help you there. (anyone else watching that series?)
Let’s talk about cooking fats. The delicious lipids that provide our food with wonderful flavors, tender consistencies, and crispy skins and crunchy crusts. Let’s face it, pan-fried and even deep-fried food is really, really delicious. But, alarmingly difficult to pull off at home if you don’t know what’s up. Here are few scientific things you should know before we go into specific fats:
- The boiling point of fat is WAY higher than that of water. This is what allows fats to “brown” our food. The browning of food is called the Mailliard Reaction and results when naturally occurring sugars and amino acids in the food being cooked are exposed to intense heat. The chemical bonds play a bit of musical chairs and form a whole new group of flavor compounds that yield aromas and flavors ranging from leafy and floral, to earthy and meaty. It is like delicious magic. (sidenote- caramelization is the same reactionary process, only caramelization refers to the reaction occurring to sugar alone.)
- Fats are water-fearing. Or “hydrophobic” if you want to sound cool. Well, I think it’s cool. It’s probably not cool. This is important for many scientific reasons that will put you to sleep. But I think what’s MOST important about this is to DRY THE SURFACE OF YOUR FOOD BEFORE COOKING IT. Whether you are cooking vegetables or meat in a cooking fat, make sure they are dry. This is important for two reasons: 1) Safety- If you put a wet item in hot oil it is going to splatter because the water-fearing oil is going to “reject” any water that tries to invade it’s turf. That rejected, now crazy crazy hot water, is going to end up on your hands or arms. 2) If you put wet food in a pan with hot oil, your food is going to steam first. Steaming is good when you are dieting or cooking for grandma. Once your food starts to steam, it is really hard to “get it back” and you are likely to end up with something mushy or soggy. All that water on the food and around it is going to be “cooked out” by the oil in the pan which will take an alarmingly long time. By the time the oil gets to permeate the food…it’s already half steamed and probably not delicious.
- The Smoke Point is KEY. The smoke point means exactly what it sounds like, the temperature at which a specific fat starts to release smoke. Every type of cooking fat has a different smoke point, making them unique and useful for different purposes. You should know that a smoking pan is not good. It pretty much means ya done burnt it. Start over. Nothing tastes worse on food than burnt fat and the hardest part about this is that it releases such a subtle smell that if you have several other things cooking and you have your fan on…you may not even notice it. Not only will the burnt fat taste bad, but the smoke it is giving off is really not so great for you to breathing in.
What to do when your pan of oil is burning and smoking and you’re all freaking out: Don’t freak out. Shut off the heat, remove the pan from the hot burner. Open a window, or start your stove fan. Keep an empty tin can handy for these moments. Put the can in your sink and pour the hot fat into it. Leave it in there until it is cooled enough to move to the garbage. Avoid pouring fats down your drain or you will be paying a plumber a lot of money to correct it in the future.
On to the cooking fats!
***<3<3 Butter <3<3*** I would like to start by addressing the fact that most chefs worship the stuff. When you go out to eat, probably everything is cooked in butter and a lot of it. If you are watching your cholesterol or waistline, you should definitely take it easy on the butter. Because it is derived from animal fat, it is incredibly rich and high in saturated fat. It is also incredibly delicious and amazing. The beauty of butter is that it can be two different kinds of cooking fat.
- Whole butter has a lot of proteins in it still, which burns very easily. If used in its entirety, straight-out-da-wrapper, it is perfect for a quick saute…and nothing more. So keep whole butter for low-to-medium heat uses and for things that will cook quickly. (i.e. eggs. If you’re cooking your eggs in anything but butter…you’re doing it wrong.) The smoking point of whole butter is somewhere between 250-300F. I prefer purchasing my butter unsalted, because it allows me to keep the salt balance in my control. I am a big fan of Cabot unsalted because they don’t add artificial flavorings. Did you know that most generic “cheap” butter brands add “butter flavor” to their butter? So weird. If you want to get real Marthy you can buy a quart of heavy cream and throw it in the kitchen aid with a paddle on medium. Result: homemade butter and buttermilk.
- Clarified butter (or ghee) is butter that has been heated to melt the fat and separate the proteins. The proteins are then skimmed off, resulting in a cooking fat that can withstand higher temperatures. How high? About 435F…almost 200 degrees more than whole butter. You can clarify butter at home very easily, but I find that buying ghee is much more cost-effective. (Look for it in the foreign/imported food section.)
Partially-Hydrogenated Oils & Margarine
- Crisco, Country Crock… The package urges you to buy it because it is made from “100% vegetables!”. Just because something came from vegetables does not mean that the extensive processing did not ruin the oil. Don’t buy hydrogenated fats because they taste like crap and are terrible for you. End of section.
(If you would like more explanation of this, visit this mayoclinic site about trans fats.)
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil a.k.a.”EVOO”- Olive oil that is in its “extra virgin” state is exactly what it sounds like. It is pure, unadultered, innocent, oil. It is the oil that was collected from the first gentle pressing of the olives, and has a rich robust flavor and sometimes a lovely sediment at the bottom of the bottle. My favorite evoo is Frantoia Barbera. The smoking point of evoo is around 300-350F, making it good for low-to-medium heat very quick cooking, kind of like whole butter. In my opinion, I think evoo is best saved as a finishing oil, dipping oil, and for dressings. When you buy evoo, you should buy the best quality you can find and you should consume it as is. For cooking in a pan, I usually recommend using just a virgin or regular olive oil. Really good evoo is such a delicate thing, treated and selected sort of like wine, and should be used in its pure form. It is packed with antioxidents and is actually good for you in moderation.
- Virgin Olive Oil- This olive oil is still made from just pressing the grapes, but the difference is that it has a slightly higher acidity than evoo and has not quite made the cut during the “superior flavor test”. It still has the same smoking point as evoo. This can still be a good olive oil as long as it was “cold pressed”. Olive oils that are not marked “cold pressed” were heated at some point (to combine with other oils) which means a lot of those antioxidants and flavor compounds are lost. Not cool. Read your labels!
- Olive Oil – This is usually a blend of olive oil and another refined oil. This is an OK oil to cook anything with, since the smoking point is up to about 400-420F. This oil is my go-to for pan-searing proteins over medium-high heat when I don’t have any grapeseed oil around.
- Grapeseed Oil – With a smoking point of about 420F, it is a great oil for stir-frying, sauteeing, and protein cookery. It is similiar in health benefits to olive oil, but way cheaper. This is a good kitchen staple.
Other cooking fats
- Coconut Oil – This oil is definitely the best for you. It is cholesterol-free, trans-fat free, and delicious! It has many applications in Asian cuisine since the slight flavor of coconut is not only welcome, but an asset. Unfortunately, using coconut oil to cook something like eggs makes for a really weird end result. With a smoking point of 450F this oil is REALLY great for stir frying. The subtle coconut flavor is made magical by the addition of soy sauce after removing everything from the pan. Just make sure that the coconut oil you buy is non-hydrogenated!
- Soybean, Canola, Sunflower and Corn Oil – These oils have the highest smoking points of all the oils, reaching a whoppin’ 475-500F. They lack one thing though: flavor. They are pretty much odorless, flavorless, and just there for one thing: DEEP-FRYING. If you are thinking about embarking on a french fry or doughnut cooking journey, stock up on this but don’t forget to buy a cooking thermometer because even though these oils can get screaming hot- they can still burn. When deep frying it is important to monitor the temperature at all times, and to be weary of water. And remember not to pour the remaining oil into your sink.
That was a long one in the making guys! Hope that it provided a little clarity, and that your fire alarm gets a rest. Next time I’ll be sharing some recipes for compound herb butter, and some dressings made with really, really good extra virgin olive oil.