Before starting on my allergen-free journey, “grease a pan” meant grabbing my trusty can of non-stick spray and giving my pan a squirt. When baking, I just grabbed a cheap bottle of “vegetable oil” and never thought any more about it. Once I realized that my exclusively breastfed nursling was having allergic symptoms because of my milk, I went on a hard-core elimination diet. At that point my only available oil was olive oil (or so I thought), so I used it for everything. Then I discovered schmaltz – in my case, rendered chicken fat. A fat that is solid (though soft) at room temperature was great for high-fat baked goods like biscuits and pie crusts. It worked well for greasing pans, too, though it was tough to get enough of the rendered fat for the purpose. And so my study of fat had begun.
I never intended to study fats. I was raised in a culture that believes that all fats are bad, an ultra low-fat diet is the key to weight loss, and animal fats are disgusting. But when I was on the elimination diet, I lost a lot of weight. So much so that I had what the neurologist called “pressure palsy,” the pins and needles feeling in my arms and legs that happened frequently, without apparent cause. Basically, the fat that cushioned my nerves to protect them was gone, and any pressure, even laying down, would cause pins and needles. I started pouring oils on my food. Olive oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil – I applied all of them liberally to my food to help my weight stabilize. I sautéed, deep fried, and baked high-fat cookies, and the pressure palsy eventually went away (as did my ability to fit into size 2 jeans – I was definitely too thin for my frame).
It turns out that fat is really important. Vitamins A, D, E and K are all fat soluble, meaning that your body needs fat to get these important vitamins. Much neurological tissue is fatty, including the brain, which needs dietary cholesterol to function well. Breastmilk is actually quite high in cholesterol, due to the infant’s need to feed a rapidly growing brain. When eating an over-processed standard American diet, getting plenty of fat is hardly a problem. But when you transition to a whole foods or traditional foods diet, suddenly, getting enough of the right kinds of fat can be a challenge.
Here’s an inventory of the fats in my kitchen now, and how I use them.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: This oil has a low smoke point*, so it’s best for unheated applications, such as salad dressing, or pouring on a baked potato in place of butter. I admit that I do still cook with olive oil, though I’m trying to move away from it.
Unrefined Coconut Oil: With a medium smoke point*, I occasionally bake with this oil, but we don’t like the flavor much. However, the low melting point of 75 degrees makes this a very unique fat to work with. I’ll put a lump in our hot cereal, or use it as a spread. We also keep of jar of inexpensive refined coconut oil in the bathroom to use as body lotion.
Cultured Goat’s Milk Butter: I make this myself, skimming the cream from goat’s milk that has set for a few days. Because I don’t have much of this, I use it sparingly, usually as a spread. I rarely cook with it, as that would destroy the beneficial probiotic culture, but I will occasionally sauté or bake with it to add flavor.
Palm Shortening: This fat has a higher smoke point*, and is solid at room temperature, making it ideal for greasing muffin tins and making pie crusts. I find, especially at my altitude, that a liquid oil does not work for greasing a baking pan. I either get a fried texture to the edges of my baked goods, or else the oil soaks into the batter and then the food doesn’t release from the pan properly. This fat is also suitable for frying, but it’s pricey.
Beef Tallow: I get beef trimmings for free from our local health food store, and render out the fat myself. This fat has a high smoke point*, and it’s cheap to me, so I use it for frying, especially deep frying French fries.
Chicken Schmaltz: I skim the fat off cooled broth, and collect pan drippings from fried chicken skins. This is a good fat for sautéing meat and veggies.
Of course, there are a bunch of other oils out there to use. Some, like sesame oil, have lovely flavors that enhance your dishes. But at this season in my life, I’m trying to keep it simple, and 6 different kinds of fat is plenty, thank you very much. Your mileage may vary.
* It’s important to know the smoke points of the various fats you use. Overheating your fat breaks it down and releases undesirable free fatty acids. So keep those fatty acids captive, and don’t overheat your fat!