It’s time to chew the fat, y’all. And we mean that literally.
This week we’re celebrating all the various cooking fats that have our attention right now. Don’t get us wrong: We love olive oil, butter and bacon grease as much as the next cook. But there’s more than one way to fry an egg, and we’re going to look at a dozen of those other fats you may not be as familiar with.
In some cases, that means celebrating long lost kitchen staples such as tallow and schmaltz (that’s rendered beef and chicken fat, respectively). We’ll also examine some of the more trendy options (we see you, avocado and coconut oil), and question widely held misconceptions about others.
All of these fats have passed through our kitchens in recent months, and have respective strengths and weaknesses.
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Our advice when it comes to cooking fats or any other ingredient, is taken from the legendary Julia Child: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Avocado oil: Cosmetics manufacturers have long loved this oil thanks to its high vitamin E content and rapid absorption rate, but it’s just as beautiful in the kitchen. For starters, refined avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points — that’s the temperature at which an oil produces visible smoke — in the game at nearly 520 degrees, making it among the strongest performers in a frying pan. It also has a neutral flavor and rich texture ideal for emulsified vinaigrettes and other sauces.
Beef tallow: There was a point in American history when nearly everyone (knowingly or not) was a fan of rendered beef tallow. It was the cooking medium that made McDonald’s french fries famous. As with many other fats before and since, beef tallow fell victim to health-conscious norms of the times, and was phased out of McDonald’s kitchens in 1990.
Well, in a state that eats as much beef as Texas, that’s just unconscionable. The next time you’re trimming a brisket for the smoker, dice all that extra fat into ¼-inch cubes. Toss those into a large Dutch oven and add ½ cup of water. Cook that, uncovered, in a 300-degree oven, stirring every 30 minutes, until the fat has liquefied and the remaining beef bits have browned. Strain the tallow and keep it in airtight jars at room temperature. Use the same process to render pork lard.
Canola oil: Canola is produced from a variety of rapeseed that was conventionally bred to be low in erucic acid, which was found to be toxic in laboratory tests conducted in the 1970s. The plant rape, a relative of mustard, cabbage and other brassicas, obviously has an identity problem. That prompted the Rapeseed Association of Canada to rebrand the resultant oil as canola, a shorthand for “Canada” and “oil.”
Canola oil has been in many of our kitchens for decades, but remains divisive. There are still many claims that canola is linked to health problems. The Harvard School of Public Health and Mayo Clinic, however, say canola oil is safe, and health concerns about it are unfounded.
What isn’t disputed is canola’s high smoke point of 400 degrees or higher, its neutral flavor and its affordable price, all of which make it a strong contender for deep frying, pan frying and other forms of high-heat cookery.
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Coconut oil: Coconut oil has gained considerable traction in recent years thanks to a host of beneficial health claims. And like canola oil, many of those claims have been challenged by the medical establishment, which remains critical of the oil’s high levels of saturated fat.
Health concerns aside, unrefined coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point at 350 degrees and consequentially isn’t well suited to frying at high temperatures. It does, however, have a very strong tropical aroma that can quickly leave the kitchen smelling like a piña colada — which might be just the ticket depending on what you’re making. Use it to quickly saute vegetables, fish and shrimp, or as an alternative to butter in baked goods.
Duck fat: This one’s all about big, bold flavor. Once the darling of high-dollar dining rooms, duck fat french fries and duck fat roasted potatoes are now de rigueur from food trucks to home kitchens and beyond.
Duck fat smokes at 375 degrees, considered the upper end of the ideal deep frying temperature range. It’s an expensive fat — a brand sold at H-E-B and Central Market retails for more than $11 per pound. Consequently, you’ll get more mileage (and flavor) out of a roasting pan than deep fryer.
Ghee: Ghee, or clarified butter, is butter that’s been heated and had its milk solids strained out. This process renders a fat that can be heated to 485 degrees and is perfect for high-temperature cooking where the fragrant aroma of butter is desired.
If you’re the kind of cook who keeps a stick of butter on the counter for those last-minute sizzles, ghee has another benefit: it’s shelf life is considerably longer than butter at nearly three months versus a couple weeks.
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Grapeseed oil: As its name suggests, grapeseed oil is extracted from crushed grape seeds. A strong option for pan frying that can take high temperatures, grapeseed oil also has a nearly blank palate in flavor terms. That, combined with a very light texture that carries other flavors well, make it an ideal oil to infuse with herbs and spices. Its also a solid option for salad dressings, mayonnaise and other emulsified sauces as well as baked goods.
Lard: Real lard, not the hydrogenated stuff sold in room-temperature cartons in the baking aisle, was once a staple in most American kitchens as an all-purpose cooking fat. Unlike bacon grease, which also comes from rendered pork fat, carries with it the salty funk of the cured bacon. Lard has a more neutral flavor.
It’s a fine choice for the skillet with a smoke point of 370 degrees, but to really see lard shine, swap it for the shortening in your next pastry crust. You’ll get flaky, tender results (without a whiff of pork chop) ideal for an apple pie.
Palm oil: In this county, palm oil is most often spoken of alongside terms like environmental sustainability and responsible agriculture, as vast acreage of rain forest has been cleared to make way for high-yield, highly profitable, oil palms.
In its common unrefined form, palm oil (sometimes sold as dende oil) is bright orange thanks to a high beta-carotene content. Like coconut oil, it’s also very high in saturated fats and can be solid at room temperature. Palm oil has many characteristics suitable for high-temperature cookery, but it also has a very strong flavor, making it a better choice for dishes designed to embrace its unique musky-fruit taste, like a concentrated floral cantaloupe.
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Safflower oil: If you’re concerned about peanut allergies, but just have to get your stir-fry on, safflower oil is the way to go. This has a smoke point well over 500 degrees, making it one of the best options for a screaming hot wok.
While safflower comes from a plant sometimes called “bastard saffron” for its similar color and looks to the very expensive spice saffron, safflower oil is colorless and flavorless. This also makes it a good candidate for infusing with other flavors.
Schmaltz: Chicken fat rendered with onions, schmaltz is a traditional Jewish comfort ingredient that crosses cultural boundaries, even earning star billing in 2013’s “The Book of Schmaltz” by noted food writer Michael Ruhlman. It’s as effective as many other animal-based fats for frying, baking and roasting, but oh so much more flavorful, and an indespensible part of classic Jewish dishes like kasha varnishkes and chopped liver.
This is among the easier fats to process at home. Add 2 cups of chopped chicken fat and skin with a little water to a pan and bring it to a simmer. When the water evaporates and the fat begins to brown, add a chopped onion and continue frying until well browned. Strain off the crunchy bits (a treat in their own right called gribenes) and store the schmaltz in airtight jar in the refrigerator.
Walnut oil: Walnut oil has a smoke point adequate for frying, but it has a tendency to go bitter when heated. Fortunately, its rich nutty flavor is a terrific alternative to extra-virgin olive oil when drizzled over finished dishes such as salads, steaks and roasted vegetables. For a quick dessert, try brushing a little walnut oil over a warm grilled peach, then top that with a dollop of whipped cream.
Paul Stephen is a food and drink writer in the San Antonio area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | email@example.com | Twitter: @pjbites | Instagram: @pjstephen