Fat is an essential part of cooking. It adds flavor as well as helps food brown and cook. It is important to know that not all fats are created equal. The easiest distinction is the source of the fat (animal or vegetable). Every fat, even within the same category, has subtle and not so subtle differences and each fat has its own uses as well as tasks that it is not suited for.
Butter is one of the oldest used fats for cooking. In fact, it is a key ingredient in many of the cuisines of the world due to its incomparable flavor. While it is used primarily in sauces, pastries, creams and soups, butter is actually a somewhat poor cooking medium by itself due to the very low smoke point, or the temperature at which a fat begins to break down and smoke. Normal butter has the lowest smoke point of all commonly used fats for cooking and clarified butter has a higher smoke point. Oils (mainly vegetable) with a higher smoke point are often used with butter to increase the temperatures at which it can be used to cook.
The next most accepted cooking fat is oil. Oils come from a variety of sources including seeds, plants and vegetables; each with its own properties. Vegetable oils are extracted from a variety of plants including corn, peanuts, soy beans, cotton, sesame, or grape seeds. These oils are virtually odorless and have a neutral flavor. Due to the relatively high smoke points, these oils are great high heat cooking methods and applications.
Nut oils are extracted from a variety of nuts and have strong flavors and aromas. These oils are used more as flavoring additives to things such as dressings and marinades. Even with a higher smoke point, heat degenerates the flavor of these oils, so they are not recommended for high heat cooking.
Olive oil is one of the most commonly used oils in the kitchen. It is the only oil to be extracted from a fruit rather than a grain, nut, or seed. Olive oil has a big variation due to multiple factors such as the variety of tree, the ripeness of the olives, the soil, the climate and even the olives themselves. The designations of virgin, extra virgin, and pure refer to the acidity of the oil as well as the extent of processing used to extract the oil. Virgin and extra virgin oils have been produced by the use of mechanical means only, with no chemical treatment. Extra virgin oils have less than 1% acidity while virgin oils have less than 3%. Extra virgin oil has a relatively low smoke point as well as the fact that adding heat takes away what makes it extra virgin, so it is not really suitable for high heat cooking. Instead, good quality olive oil should be enjoyed on its own or as a flavor enhancer. If you want to use olive oil for cooking use pure olive oil instead. The flavor of the olive oil can also range from quite mild to very strong. Personal preference as well as the application should ultimately decide which oil to use.
Cooking without fat really isn’t cooking and when used properly, adds another dimension to dishes. The key is to know what fat to use for what purpose.
Photos courtesy of Charleigh McAlexander.