The subject of saturated fats has been trending among both the media and the health industry, with a constant debate over whether they're as bad for us as once thought. It's true that saturated fat can drive up total cholesterol, especially the harmful LDL that can block arteries in the heart and body. But there's evidence that it also increases the "good" HDL cholesterol.
"Whether saturated fat is bad depends on the comparison," explains Walter Willett, MD, chair of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health and author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. "Unfortunately, to lower saturated fat [in the American diet], refined starches and sugar are used as replacement calories and could actually be harmful for some people."
Our stance: Saturated fat, if kept within the USDA's guidelines of less than 10% of total calories from sat fat per day (20g based on a 2,000-calorie diet), is OK.
Consider butter, arguably one of life's most indulgent guilty pleasures. It is one of the most concentrated sources of saturated fat, at 7.3g per tablespoon (30% of the USDA's daily recommendation). But the beauty of butter is that it doesn't take much to make a big impact—a few tablespoons at most to finish an entire pan of meat and veggies to serve four people. What butter does so beautifully is make healthy food such as whole grains, greens, lean protein, and fish taste better. And we believe it's worth splurging on premium, European-style butters such as Kerrygold and Plugrá. These butters have a higher butterfat percentage (and lower water content), so less is needed to create that luscious sauce—stretching that extra dollar you paid for it, too.
To demonstrate, we use this mouthwatering fat to enhance and elevate ultralean chicken breasts in our Chicken and Carrots with Lemon Butter Sauce recipe. Adding a dab of butter near the end of cooking lends a creamy, satin-smooth finish that no other fat can emulate. The fat emulsifies and slightly thickens the sauce enough to coat the chicken beautifully. This technique works equally well on lean fish.
The Takeaway: Find your balance with butter. Each tablespoon is packed with inimitable flavor and mouthfeel. And while it may not be the villain we once thought, it is a highly concentrated source of sat fat, with more than 7g per tablespoon. Use it sparingly but smartly in dishes where no other fat will do—like the delicate pan sauce at right.
Earlier: Cooking with Healthy Fats