Steadily increasing American obesity notwithstanding, consumption of food with fat in it is a necessity. That means use of fat in the culinary arts is a necessity. Fat does many things in cooking, most of them good.
"Fat is a good word," Chef Dan Fluharty said in one recent lecture at the California Culinary Academy. "Fat transfers heat, makes flavor, adds moisture, adds texture and feel in the mouth, provides a semi-permeable barrier and serves as a lubricant."
No question arises about the need for fat in good cooking, all good cooking, not just gourmet cooking or French cuisine. At-home cooking needs fat, too.
We use fat in culinary school, but the quantities are limited and utilitarian, not only for flavor.
Limiting fat intake is of course a necessity. It's not as difficult as it seems. Mostly, if Americans avoid or severely limit the amount of fast food, "junk" food and other food with processed sugar in it, they can remain healthy.
Here's a quick primer on use of fats in cooking:
* Let animal fats speak for themselves. If there's more than a quarter-inch strip of fat on a steak or a pork chop, trim it off. The skinless chicken breast is healthier and can be kept flavorful if cooked properly. Ground beef is now sold with the fat percentage on the label; simply buy one with a lower percentage.
* Butter is necessary in sauces and other cooking, but its intake can be limited, too. In cooking, use unsalted butter. Something else to note: Chef Instructor Tony Marano told us in class one day that U.S. commercial butter is 20% fat, while European butter is 10% fat. Good to know.
* Be selective in using vegetable oils in cooking. The best oils for cooking are canola and grape-seed. Both have high smoke points and are relatively healthy. Extra virgin olive oil should never be used for cooking; the heat changes its chemical composition. Read labels to avoid oils that include hydrogenation and say they have trans-fats in them. The trend is away from these ingredients, but some products, especially mass-produced breads and pastries and some other fat-inclusive food products, still contain them.
* Some fats are actually good for us, relatively speaking. Unsaturated fatty acids, like the omega-3 nutrients, aren't produced by the human body so must be consumed. Oily fish, such as salmon, have omega-3, and some milk and eggs can be found that include omega-3, depending on what the animals that produced those products were fed. Again, read labels.
* Be careful about claims that some foods burn fats in the body. While it's true that some foods do this, the effects are very limited. For example, cayenne pepper is known to burn fat, as are ginger, garlic and cinnamon. All should be part of a healthy diet, but the amount of those we can consume is pretty limited.
None of this is meant to justify unlimited or random consumption of fatty foods. Yet, unless one is on a medically restricted diet because of a certain heart condition or other ailment, fat remains a naturally occurring and necessary part of nutrition.
And that includes its use in the culinary arts and all cooking.
(This posting is also available at my daughter Ann Chihak Poff's blog, www.gofitgirl.com.)