Any foodie will tell you that the secret ingredient for any recipe, whether it's
a simple chocolate chip cookie or an elaborate cassoulet, is love. I learned
this from my first culinary inspiration, Mom, and from every subsequent
chef/mentor thereafter. What I have grown to understand and subsequently pass on
to young cooks and anybody else who will listen is that love is another word for
fat. All right, maybe not all of the time. But usually there is no substitute
for a little fat to elevate your cooking from "everyday" to "special day". Fat
makes pastries crisp and light. Fat makes burgers juicy. Fat gives pâté its
smooth texture. And fat balances out the acid in vinaigrettes. As long as it is
used appropriately and the quality is superb, we can have our cake (or steak)
and eat it too. So let's separate fat from fiction and try to digest the
different uses for many of the different varieties of fat that are available to
Since the eighties and the rise in popularity of Mediterranean cuisine, the use
of olive oil has exploded in our kitchens. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated
fats, which is believed to help reduce the risk of heart disease. It is also low
in saturated fats, which is good news for our LDL cholesterol levels. Health and
nutrition aside, when used properly olive oil can be delicious on its own or it
can add a flavour component to food that is unmatched by other oils. However, in
order to get the most out of your oil, it is important to understand the
differences between extra virgin, pure, and premium olive oil.
Oil that has been extracted from the first pressing of olives using a cold press
without chemicals is given the designation "extra virgin". It has a distinct
olive flavour and aroma. Its colour ranges from bright yellow to deep green. In
my cooking extra virgin olive oil is used for vinaigrettes, marinades, confits,
sauces, and extremely gentle cooking.
So what type of cooking do I do with extra virgin olive? I make a chopped,
marinated salad with five to ten different vegetables that gets cooked at a very
low temperature to concentrate flavors and soften the texture. Then I remove the
vegetables from the pan and marinate them in red wine vinegar and lemon juice
while they are still warm. As the veggies cool, they soak up the acid and
vinegar and you are left with a fresh, crunchy salad with instant dressing.
Sometimes I add Ewenity Dairy's Sheep's Milk Feta and serve it alongside The
Healthy Butcher's delicious lamb. Other times I fold in some chopped endive and radiccio to be served with some juicy slices of Vacio steak.
Do not, I repeat, do not cook at high temperatures with extra virgin olive oil.
You know the saying, "if you can't take the heat..."? It was created specifically
for extra virgin olive oil. Why? Because extra virgin olive oil has a very low
smoking point (the temperature at which a fat begins to break down when heated)
which causes it to burn and results in an off flavour in your food. As my
sister-in-law says: "Maybe I'm not such a bad cook after all. I've just been
using the wrong oil." I guess it's possible. The moral of the story? Extra
virgin olive oil is NOT all-purpose. Use it judiciously and your cooking will
automatically taste better.
When I am teaching cooking classes my students learn the differences between
extra virgin and pure olive oil. Let's set the record straight since this is an
important fat fact! Pure olive oil is extra virgin that is added to processed or
refined olive oil. It does not have the same intense olive flavour and it
usually has a vibrant yellow tint. But is it inferior to extra virgin? I prefer
to say that pure olive oil takes over where extra virgin should not venture. For
example, I cook with pure olive oil. I do not sear meats with pure, but I do
roast and sautée vegetables.
Another great use for pure olive oil has less to do with flavour and more to do
with economics. Chefs are a notoriously "thrifty" bunch. On your next shopping
excursion, check out the price of pure olive oil versus extra virgin. It is
usually priced 30 to 50% cheaper. So if you want to save a few bucks (and who
doesn't?) try this out for size. When making an emulsified vinaigrette start by
whisking extra virgin olive into your vinegar as you normally would do. When you
have added approximately half of your usual amount, taste the mixture. If you
have captured the flavour of extra virgin, finish your vinaigrette with pure
olive oil. Essentially, you are using extra virgin for flavour and bulking up
with pure. Then you can use the savings to add an expensive Parmiggiana Reggiano,
or black truffles, or gold shavings... Whatever you decide, it is money in your
Premium Extra Virgin
Premium Extra Virgin olive oil is extra virgin's richer cousin. It is the stuff
that is usually bottled in something small and fancy and sealed with a cork. It
is more expensive, tastes better and should not be wasted in vinaigrettes or
marinades. A beautiful extra virgin olive oil is meant to be savoured on its own
as a dip or perhaps drizzled on some beautiful local, baby greens or perfect
Buffalo mozzarella. Never, ever cook with it and try not to mask its flavour
with too many competing ingredients.
While some consumers may turn their backs on animal fats as a viable ingredient
due to health concerns or dietary restrictions, there is no denying that lard,
duck fat, beef suet and a whole host of other animal fats play an important role
in the culinary world. In fact, just walk into The Healthy Butcher and head
straight for the meat case where you will find most of them available for
purchase. I know from experience that people like their fats because they truly
fly off the shelves. But with so many options, how does one know which variety
to purchase? Or more specifically, what does one do with a pint of lard or duck
fat? Mmmmm... duck fat.
Beef Suet & Tallow
Suet is the hard fatty tissues around the kidneys and loins of cattle and sheep.
Tallow is rendered suet that is commercially produced by heating large
quantities under extreme pressure. Suet is classically used to make mincemeats,
stuffings, and puddings (usually by the British). Back in the day, an un-McMentioned
fast food chain mixed beef tallow with vegetable oil to fry their distinctively
flavoured French fries. After complaints from healthy conscious consumers they
removed the tallow and instead added beef flavouring to the potatoes.
Some of the best fries I have ever eaten were fried in grass-fed beef tallow.
Like many Healthy Butcher customers already know, grass-fed beef is lower in
saturated fat and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E and beta-carotene
than grain- or corn-fed beef. Were these french fries "good for you"? Probably
not, but the quality of beef tallow used to fry the potatoes was much better
than conventional beef fat and their flavour was incredible.
"Pork fat rules!" Emeril screams this eloquent cheer on the Food Network
regularly, and the truth of the matter is - he's not completely wrong. For
certain purposes in the kitchen, you can't beat pork fat. It has an amazing
ability to keep roasts, pâtés, and terrines astonishingly moist. The Healthy
Butcher's signature porchetta is wrapped in pork fat and skin which allows the
roast to cook at a low temperature without drying out.
Nearly all of the terrines I make contain fatback (or back fat as it is often
called), the layer of fat along the back of the pig. Whether I am making a duck,
squab, or wild boar terrine, I mix fatback with the other ingredients and grind
them together. Often I will also slice the fatback extremely thin and wrap it
around the terrine. Both of these techniques ensure that the terrine does not
dry out during the cooking process. Bacon can be similarly used to keep leaner
cuts of pork or beef, such as a filet mignon, moist.
Another common use for pork fat is baking. Lard is pork fat that has been
rendered. It is the preferred shortening for many chefs and home cooks as it
tends to produce a flakier crust than butter - and it's healthier than butter!
Pork lard is free of trans-fatty hydrogenation, and contains just 40% saturated
fat (vs. 60% for butter), while its level of mono-unsaturated fat (the good
stuff) is an admirable 45% (twice that of butter).
Lard is also eaten in various parts of the world as a spread. I distinctly
remember Mario and Tara returning from their vacation in Poland and telling
everybody that lard was placed on the table at every restaurant instead of
butter. I get chest pains just thinking about it. But lard has definitely come
back into gastronomic fashion. Mario Batali is famous for his lardo, cured
fatback that he drapes over grilled bread with a drizzle of extra virgin olive
oil. I melt The Healthy Butcher's homemade Lardo - with hints of juniper modeled
after the famous Italian Lardo from Valle D'Aosta - over a white crusty bread
and drizzle truffle oil... heavenly. It is difficult to walk into a restaurant
these days and not find braised pork belly on the menu. Why? Because the fatty
belly and the crisped skin is almost irresistible. All of this is very good news
for consumers and pigs alike. We're getting back to our roots and using a
greater share of the pig. Less waste is created and we are finding interesting
preparations for everything, from head to tail, and even the fat.
I don't really like duck fat... I LOVE duck fat. It has an unmistakable flavour and
aroma and when it's mixed with thyme, rosemary and garlic I get the warm fuzzies.
Duck fat is widely used in French cuisine, in addition to butter and olive oil.
Duck confit is duck legs that are cured and subsequently cooked in duck fat at
an extremely low temperature. This technique is employed to slowly break down
the tough, sinewy muscle fibers of the duck legs. An authentic cassoulet
contains white beans, duck confit, Toulouse sausage and anywhere from five to
thirty other ingredients, depending on the chef. In my opinion, the most
important step in the making of a great cassoulet is the cooking of the beans. I
cook mine with a good amount of duck fat in addition to chicken stock and chunks
of bacon. As the beans slowly cook and then cool, they soak up all of the duck
fat and attain a buttery texture like no other. The easiest recipe I know that
uses duck fat is roasted potatoes. Simply roast perfect local fingerling or
Yukon Gold potatoes in duck fat and the aroma that fills your kitchen is
ethereal, while the flavour on your palate is pure joy.
I don't know many people who cook with chicken fat (schmaltz) anymore. But when
my father was growing up, it was a staple in his house. Schmaltz appeared in my
grandmother's homemade matzah balls. It's the base of any good kishkah (stuffed
derma) and it was every Jewish child's favourite after-school snack in the form
of "greeben", fried chicken skin (a.k.a. Jewish popcorn). Do any of these items
appear in a typical Jewish household today? Over our collective mother's dead
bodies!!! But chicken fat does hold a place in the gastronomic world today. To
make a great chicken liver pâté, chicken fat is my choice for texture and
flavour. In fact, use chicken fat in place of duck fat to give your food the
nostalgic taste of Eastern Europe circa 1920. To make your own schmaltz, boil
chicken skin and the fat from within the carcass with a little water. Once the
water has evaporated, strain the liquid through a fine mesh sieve and store it
in the refrigerator. It will last for months, and your taste buds will thank
I love dairy. My wife, Elisse, loves dairy. Our stomachs? Not so much. But that
does not stop us from indulging in yoghurt with fresh, local berries in the
summer. We devour cheese of all varieties, from all over the world (and yes, we
have a soft spot for Ontario and Quebec cheeses). I could not execute a
significant number of my creations without butter. And don't even get me started
on ice cream. Cuisines from every corner of the earth rely on different
variations of milk products to achieve the smooth mouth-feel that only dairy
provides. Margarine can't do it. Soy and rice milk don't come close. If your
digestive system has difficulty processing dairy, then by all means, use the
substitutes. But if it is not an issue source the best local, organic dairy you
can find (Organic Meadow or Harmony Organics in Ontario) and your cooking will
In every restaurant that I have trained, butter is king. When meat and fish are
pan roasted, they are inevitably finished with a nub of butter, a clove of
garlic and a sprig of thyme. Sauces are either composed of butter or finished
with butter. Mashed potatoes are "Frenchified" into "pommes puree" by whipping
butter into the potatoes at a ratio of nearly 1:1. Buyer beware: one tablespoon
of this stuff goes a long way.
When used properly, butter makes pastries flaky by creating little pockets of
fat between layers of flour. The butter steams during the baking process,
leavens the dough and melts away, leaving a combination of crispness and flavour
that is heavenly. Local food writers love to tackle the debate over who makes
the best croissant in the city. Personally, I have tried a lot of them and my
vote goes to Marc Thuet. Most likely he uses really good butter and lots of it.
The easiest pie dough recipe I know is called "3,2,1". That means three cups
flour, 2 pounds butter, and 1 Cup ice water. Add one pinch of salt for every cup
Clarified butter is another form of fat that French cuisine could not do
without. It is valued for its high smoking point; its clean, distinct flavour;
and natural affinity for meats and fish. To make your own clarified butter,
bring whole butter (unsalted) to a simmer and skim the foam that rises to the
top. When you can clearly see the bottom of the pot, remove it from the heat and
gently pour through a fine mesh sieve. Allow clarified butter to cool completely
to room temperature before covering it and placing it in the refrigerator. It is
extremely important not to allow condensation to collect within the container
and do not let any liquid come into contact with clarified butter. When the
slightest drop of water is mixed with clarified butter and it is heated on the
stove, the butter crackles and splatters. It can cause serious burns and ignite
into flames quite easily. Use it with care, but experiment with it every now and
then. Clarified butter will add a certain "je ne sais quoi" to your Sunday
Perhaps the greatest stigma when it comes to fat is associated with cream.
Fettucine Alfredo, comprising of copious amounts of cream, is often referred to
as "heart attack on a plate". In restaurants, customers regularly ask if a soup
is cream based. I have never even heard of a soup that has cream as its base and
I certainly would not want to eat one. But finishing a pureed soup with cream
can be glorious and usually is the difference between a homemade soup and one
made by a chef in a restaurant.
The variety of fats
available to consumers for cooking is overwhelming. I have not even mentioned
vegetable oils, grapeseed, sesame, hemp, or nut oils. In my opinion, every type
of fat has a rightful place in our pantries or refrigerators. Trying different
fats in various combinations could throw an interesting spin on tried and true
recipes. If you have an aversion to certain types of fat, by all means,
experiment with another variety. Mashed potatoes mixed with extra virgin olive
oil are delicious and chicken liver pate made with cream is equally smooth. So
go ahead and add a little fat to your repertoire. Just make sure that you buy
high quality fat to match the other ingredients in your shopping basket and you
use a quantity that you are comfortable consuming. Because if you did not know
already "fat is the new black".
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