From time to time I find myself explaining why I use certain ingredients, or being asked what certain foods are good for. Which ingredients do I consider essential to my pantry? Because I'm behind in taking pictures of foods for the cookbook reviews, I'm going to start on this series and try to juggle yet another ball. (Speaking of cookbooks, next up is Vegan Brunch either this weekend or the beginning of next week, so stay tuned! And just as a preview, most of the book can be made gluten-free. Hooray!) This week I want to highlight cooking fats--which are my favorites, and how to use them. I realize that the best time for this one would've been on Shrove Tuesday, but... Life got crazy.
Why highlight fats first? Well, they're delicious (for one). Also, our bodies need fat. Please don't take that to mean that our bodies need a whole bunch of animal fats, because they don't. (I'll give you fish oils, but I'm mostly talking those saturated fats found in beef and pork.) And while we're on the topic, I don't believe for a second that the newish trend of believing saturated animal fats are particularly good for us if they're from organic-free range-humanely-treated animals. Sorry. I'll give you "tasty" as an adjective, but not "healthy." Instead, olive oil, coconut oil (a saturated fat, but a healthy one), and other plant-based oils can give you delicious food and can work just as well--if not better--than animal fats. I've included butter in here because it is in my pantry on occasion... But we usually use it as a finisher for flavor rather than an everyday cooking fat. I generally keep three types of fat at home (and occasionally buy others in small quantities for recipe testing or a specific fancy dish): Olive oil, coconut oil, and butter.
First up, extra virgin olive oil. I have a big bottle of Spanish extra virgin olive oil in my pantry. I go through that stuff like you wouldn't believe--that is, unless you're the same way. I think there are many people who would agree that it's one of the all-around healthiest and most delicious fats to use in cooking. I use it in soups, stews, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, on pasta, in baking, for dressings and sauces, and even in some desserts. Now, it's not for everything. If you want to bake cupcakes, extra virgin olive oil is probably not your best bet. The flavor will overpower anything else you're using, so beware if playing with delicate flavors. But I love the fruitiness of extra virgin olive oil. Play around with different origins for different flavors. Buy an expensive one in small quantities for drizzling; an economical one for everyday cooking. (Here's a Serious Eats review of different everyday olive oils for reference.)
Light and extra light olive oils are also good for cooking, and are generally better for dishes that have a more delicate flavor balance than Mediterranean fare. Extra light olive oil is fantastic in place of canola oil (which I don't like) in baked goods. You will have no olive oil aftertaste if you use extra light olive oil. Regular old olive oil is fine for cooking, too, and I generally use it for higher heat fried dishes.
Next: Coconut oil. Man, is this stuff good. I use it for baking all the time. And for stir-fries at high heat, and for curries. And.. Well, you get the picture. Coconut oil is one of my favorite in baking because it's a healthy fat, but also because it's a saturated fat. (That just means that it's solid at room temperature, not that it's necessarily artery-clogging.) Know what else is a saturated fat? Butter. And interestingly coconut oil and butter melt at similar temperatures, making coconut oil the perfect choice to replace butter in recipes calling for butter or shortening. You will get flaky biscuits and pie crusts, perfect cookies, and moist cakes. Keep in mind, though, that while butter is generally about 80% fat, coconut oil is 100% fat. That means you need less of it when replacing butter in a recipe. I generally use about 75% of the volume of butter called-for in a recipe. (I admit, though, that the first few times I used coconut oil as a one for one replacement of butter and got the greasiest, nastiest pastries imaginable. So be aware of the composition of the fats you use in cooking!) Keep in mind that you can get refined and unrefined coconut oils. They taste vastly different, as different as, say, light olive oil and extra virgin. Refined coconut oil is fairly neutral in taste, but the unrefined stuff is definitely sweeter and tropical. I love both, but if you're new to coconut oil you might want to try both and see which one you like best.
Oh right. And butter. My husband loves butter. And okay, I'll admit it: I like butter too. But here we really use it as a condiment and in things that need a buttery taste. If you need a vegan version, Earth Balance I think is the best nondairy "butter" out there--and they make a soy-free version now. (It's the one in the red tub.) But dairy butter--cow and goat alike--is great for some applications. Buttercream? Yes. Spreading on toast? Absolutely. It's great in baked goods that need a little color and the creamy taste that comes from butter. I prefer using local butter in only selected baked goods because the stuff I buy is too expensive to use everyday. Shortbread comes to mind as one of the better uses. I only buy unsalted butter, so that I can use it for both sweet and savory dishes without worrying about a salty flavor. My favorite butters have been goat milk-based, because they have such a unique tangy flavor. Cultured butters are also nice. (Honestly, though? Buy some cream from a local dairy and try making your own. It's a fun project to do with kids, and your butter will be ridiculously fresh.)
As for the other fats I use on occasion, my favorites are avocado oil, truffle oil, toasted walnut oil, and toasted sesame oil. I don't use them as often, but they do make appearances in my pantry. I've been wanting to play with infused oils and will probably be making some of my own when my herb garden is ready for harvest this summer. Why didn't I include animal fats? Easy answer: I don't really use them. If I've gotten some local bacon I'll occasionally render fat, but I can't even remember the last time I did that. And even though I am no longer vegan, the idea of having a tub of lard in my pantry just doesn't... appeal to me. (Something about a flashback to the first time I watched Down Periscope.)