Friday, July 24, 2009

Roly Poly, Daddy's Little Fatty

I never bought into the whole low fat diet thing. My parents didn't buy into it and it just never made any sense. Why would you want to eat margarine, which comes from a factory, rather than butter, which comes from a cow? Why eat sugar and preservative laden low-fat cookies when you could just eat real cookies in moderation? When I read Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions I finally had some words and some ideas to back up my vague feelings that a low fat diet was inappropriate. Fat isn't evil... in fact, fat is necessary for health and hapiness!

Traditional cultures have always prized fat because it is calorie dense and nutrient dense. From early American and European pig lard to SE Asian coconut oil to Inuit seal blubber fat has been the most sought after and important food stuff around the world. There's a Nature episode where Julia Roberts visits the nomadic people of Mongolia and learns about their culture. My favorite part of the show is how in one frame she is commenting on how gross the traditional butter tea is and in the next wondering how they survive such bitter cold temperatures. It didn't occur to her than the one is directly related to the other.

But in modern America something went wrong and has drastically changed how we view fat. In the middle of the 20th century a number of researchers promoted substituting unsaturated vegetable oils for traditional saturated animal fats and lowering dietary fat intake in general in order to reduce coronary heart disease. One of the best known of these researchers was Ancel Keys who published what became known as the Seven Countries Study which corrolated the lower fat diets of Post World War II Europe and Japan with that of affluent post war United States. Keys' statistical strong association weakens when other countries are added to the Seven, and almost fall apart completely when one takes into account that the Italians and French he studied had a long tradition of animal fats that had simply been put on hold by the devastation of decades of war.

In his New York Times piece What If it's All Been a Big Fat Lie Gary Taubes goes over the science and pseudoscience behind low fat and low carbohydrate diets (his research point to pro low carb and anti low fat diets). He lays out a very convincing story that a combination of imperfect human researchers and impossibly complicated human bodies have led us down a path towards obesity and disease. There is also more and more evidence that our modern diet is excessively high in polyunsaturated fats which are not a part of traditional diets. Polyunsaturated fat in the form of vegetable oil is cheap to produce and with the advances in chemically separating the oil from plant seeds, removing toxic chemicals and deodorizing the oils it has become a staple in every American home, restaurant and food processing plant.

Low fat, high fat? Unsaturated, mono-, poly-, just plain saturated fat? Omegas and LDLs and all that... what's a girl to do? Look to the past, that's what I always say. What would people use for cooking fat if they didn't have mono-cropped soy beans and giant food processing factories?

Using this criteria I have put together a fat primer for you. I present it to you with the reminder that we all do the best we can with what we have. I eat out sometimes, I eat at people's houses sometimes and sometimes I even get a pack of chips out of a vending machine. I am not a whole food Nazi, but when I can I prefer to use the most healthful, traditional cooking fats. Here's what I do in my kitchen... on my best days.


Fats for Cooking by Type of Fat

Unrefined coconut oil: This is the work horse of my cooking fats. It is almost flavorless and can be used at pretty high temperatures so I use it anywhere you would use "vegetable oil". It is solid when the weather is cool and liquid when room temps are above about 70F but since it comes in a wide mouth jar I just use a spoon to get it out. It's a little spendy to use for deep frying, but it would be good any other time you are cooking with fat. I usually buy Omega Nutrition brand but that's just because it's available at a good price at my local health food store.

Virgin coconut oil: I treat this as a special fat with amazing antimicrobial properties in addition to lots of medium chain fatty acids and a fantastic smell. It is pretty expensive and cooking might destroy the beneficial properties so I cook with it when I am doing something where coconut would be appreciated, like Thai curry. I melt it for use in baked goods occasionally when the flavor would be appreciated and use it along with butter on my popcorn. And sometimes I make coconut bark. Yuummm. I also use it for a number of body care products like skin cream (coconut oil and jojoba oil with a little scent) and deodorant (coconut oil and baking soda with scent). I buy pint jars at my health food store, but lots of people like Wilderness Family Naturals for 5 gallon buckets.

Butter: Mmm... butter. In addition to slathering this on bread and pouring it over popcorn I do cook with this occasionally. I use it, often mixed with coconut oil, when pan sauteing veggies or frying eggs. Butter does have some amount of water and protein in it so it will burn, but I don't have major problems with that. Ghee or clarified butter is an all purpose cooking fat in French and Indian cooking and can easily be bought or made at home. Raw, pasture raised butter is best but even regular store butter is better than margarine or vegetable oil. Look for imported butter like Kerrygold from Ireland or Anchor from New Zealand. Organic Pastures has a "pastured" butter and most stores sell organic butter these days.

Rendered animal fat: I am still working my way through the 3 pints of goose grease I rendered when I cooked a goose last winter. It's pure white, about butter consistency and has a slight poultry flavor. I enjoy cooking with this anywhere it's flavor would be appreciated or tolerated. I've also used chicken fat and would gladly use lard or tallow if I had it available. Each of these will have different flavors and smoke points but all would be good for general cooking (sauteing veggies, frying onions, browning meat, etc). A note on rendered animal fats.. these are not fats you can buy at any old grocery store.

Do NOT buy lard from a regular grocery store. The stuff they sell there is usually adulterated with hydrogenated lard and preservatives. It is not much better for you than crisco. These are fats you need to produce at home or buy from a specialty dealer/farmer. Of course, these fats are best from pastured, organic,happy animals but even grocery store chickens will make fat that is better than hydrogenated lard. You can save scraps from the meat you eat, skim fat from stock making or see if you can buy un-rendered fat from a butcher or farmer. Google around for instructions on rendering it yourself. It's not hard and the rendered fat will keep in jars in the fridge or freezer for a very long time.

Bacon grease: I collect bacon grease and keep it in a mason jar next to the stove. I use it for cooking anything a bacony flavor would be appreciate - which is lots of things. It's the best for starting soups or frying eggs. Mmm...bacon grease. And someday I'll get it together and make that bacon grease mayo recipe that's been floating around....

Olive Oil: Olive oil one of the few traditional liquid oils and is the classic oil for mayonnaise and flavored dipping oils. Buy the best quality you can afford because olive oil is subject to going rancid if not stored properly, and is probably much more adulterated than we would like to think about. It really shouldn't be cooked with. I do, sometimes for flavor, but rarely. Olive oil is much better for you when used in salad dressings or other raw applications because the monounsaturated fats are much more delicate than saturated fats. Extra virgin is the most flavorful, but feel free to use not-extra-virgin as long as you are using oil from a reputable producer.

High oleic sunflower oil: I just found this in the store, finally! It is a high monounsaturated fat oil that should be as healthful as olive oil, but with a different (less olivey perhaps?) flavor. I haven't opened the bottle yet so I can't tell you what it's like but I would use this anywhere I would use olive oil. It would be especially nice for mayo or other salad dressings where you don't necessarily want the olive oil flavor.

Spectrum palm shortening
: I bought this years ago and found it tasted horrible.It is made of deodorized palm oil and is low in polyunsaturated fats, so should be an acceptable fat. Probably a compromise fat because of how processed it is, but low in bad fats anyway. They say it can be used anywhere regular shortening would be used but the pie crust I made with it tasted like soap. Anytime I've used it for cooking I've also gotten a gross soapy flavor. I used it to season my cast iron pans last winter, and sometimes throw a glob in a wiped out cast iron skillet to grease it up and protect it. I might try it on a BBQ sometime. too.

Sunflower, safflower, sesame oil: I have bought these oils in small bottles to make salad dressings with. They are all higher in polyunsaturated fats than we would like to be consuming (especially since I probably still get a fair amount of poly unsaturated fats from factory farmed meat, eating out, eating at friend's houses and occasional packaged foods), but sometimes you have four heads of lettuce in the fridge and really don't want an all olive oil salad dressing. Now that I found the high oleic sunflower oil I won't buy these guys anymore. When looking at bottles in the oil isle at the health food store look for oils with the lowest polyunsaturated fat level and the highest monounsaturated fat level.

Red Palm Oil: I've never used this but I hear it's pretty neat. It's solid like coconut oil and deep red in color. The color indicates a high level of carotene vitamins and the saturated fats keep it stable at high temperatures.

Canola oil: This stuff really is gross and the devil in so many ways. My roommate has a bottle of it that I moved to under the sink and he hasn't missed it because he hasn't cooked in months. I busted it out when I grilled the other weekend just because I wanted to have fun and it was easy. I drank a Budweiser that night too. So sue me! :)


Cooking Fats by Type of Cooking

Pan frying/sauteing: expeller pressed coconut oil, virgin coconut oil, butter,bacon grease, rendered animal fat, olive oil. Depends on the flavor. Be careful with butter at high temps.

Baking: butter, virgin coconut oil or expeller pressed coconut oil. Depends on the flavor, and how the fat is used. I would use either, along with parchment paper, for "greasing" the pan.

Deep frying: you would want to use rendered animal fat like lard or tallow there. These fats have the highest smoke point so are able to get good and hot to fry the food without letting it get greasy.

Seasoning cast iron skillets: Lard if you have it, palm shortening or crisco. I believe that a long baking in the oven would polymerize the fat and turn it into a coating rather than a fat that gets into your food so this would be a way to use up that jar of crisco you still have. I use palm shortening or coconut oil to grease up a pan between uses if I am not going to actually bake the fat on.

BBQs or Grilling: Well... yeah, about that. I still use canola oil for this. Expeller pressed coconut oil should be fine because of it's high smoke point, but it's awfully expensive for swabbing all over a grill top. I might try the palm shortening next time. I think ideally you would have a slab of un-rendered pork fat to rub all over the grill :)


There is lots of good information out there about which fats to use and why. Check out all the links I used in this post and then check out the following resources:

*Weston A. Price Foundations Know Your Fats Index

*Cheeseslave's and Kelly the Kitchen Kop's Posts on Fat

*Nina Planck's Real Food book

*Bryan's Blog Stay Healthy, Enjoy Life. Specifically his post about fats.

Fat is a prized food for a reason. It is full of vitamins, energy giving calories and protective molecules. Remember, every cell in your body is encased in saturated fat and your brain is mostly saturated fat. The hormones that make you happy and sexy are made of saturated fat. Don't sell yourself short by going low fat or eating unhealthy, non-traditional fats.

Be sure to check out Real Food Wednesday for more posts from folks who aren't afraid of fat!! Also, be sure to click on all the photos I used to see more from my amazing, not fat-a-phobe, Flickr friends!

What fats do you cook with at home? What's your favorite way to get more fat into your diet? Whats the best butter you've ever tasted?


  1. Alyss, this is a fantastic primer on fats/oils! Thank you!

    I never saw that episode of Nature - I think it is hilarious, the contradiction you pointed out made by Julia Roberts!

    I have red palm oil - I like to use it to refry grains or to pop popcorn. Very delicious!

  2. You know, you really are an amazing cook! You really need to come out to the farm and we can see what we can come up with together..........we can use my favorite fat.............raw butter from Ella!!!! :)

  3. Great post Alyss !

    We need to live off the fat of the land :)

    I've always liked butter and whole milk, but in about 1995 I went to the doctor for a health checkup and he told me I needed to go on a low-fat diet to lower my cholesterol of 210. I thought doctors new what they were talking about, so I went against my natural taste response and switched to margarine and skim milk (yuch!) and I started buying all the foods that were labeled "low-fat". Problem was, all these foods were loaded with sugar to make up for the rich and savory flavor of fat. Otherwise they taste like cardboard. I gained around 40 pounds trying to do low-fat and I finally realized most doctor's don't know much about nutrition, thanks to groups like WAPF and Dr Mercola. I've now managed to lose all the weight I gained by going fairly low carb and using intermittent fasting, along with eating real food that doesn't come from a factory.

  4. Well written Alyss! I'm going to twitter your posting.

  5. Sing it, Sistah! :-)

    I have never bought into the lowfat diet mumbo-jumbo, either, but I found it so liberating when I read Nourishing Traditions and found out I not only didn't need to worry about it, but had free license to eat as much butter, cream and lard as I could possibly want!

  6. This is a great post, Alyss. I always loved fat and felt guilty feeding to my kids. Fortunately, my husband always "corrupted" them by buttering their bread as little ones!

    I've thought often about the Tibetan Tea and butter. Read about it in an 80s era National Geographic. I believe what most call "rancid" is just fermented to the point we no longer care for the taste. I suspect butter never really goes rancid. The article I read talked about "rancid goat butter". Without refrigeration, as most know, goat milk (and the associated cream) goes "goaty" pretty quickly. It's not rancid though.

    I believe I think about butter too much and should just eat more of it instead.

  7. great post! I am emailing this link to a few friends that I try to explain this stuff to and they look at me like deer in the headlights!

    My father's cardiologist actually told him about 7 years ago to stop eating margarine, he told him to only eat natural fats, primarily butter and olive oil.

    I remember that Nature episode well! great connection you made to this primer in fats you have written.....thank you!

  8. Thanks for linking to my Butter Tea page. What an interesting blog you have!


  9. Fantastic! I've been desperately hoping to learn how to make butter tea.

  10. Great post! Love that you're into real foods, but not a purist. I had a Budweiser the other day as well. ;) At least it was in glass, not aluminum lol

  11. Great article. I agree with the above thoughts..

    Marion Barrett
    Handmade Soap
    Handmade Soap

  12. Hello,
    Thanks for this very informative post on fats, I've also been feeling that low fat diets were unnatural and unhealthy. Great blog also !
    About seasoning cast iron pans, I've recently been looking around on the net because I feel I need to reseason mine and I found this blog post saying flaxseed oil makes the hardest polymerized coating on pans. Here's the link :