The subject of fat comes up every day in the Cooking Light Kitchen. As we test and taste recipes, we find ourselves asking more questions: How much oil is absorbed? Why can't we have the skin? When is butter a better option? Can we deep-fry this? Some questions are easily answered, while others leave us scratching our heads.
To tackle these issues Test Kitchen veteran Robin Bashinsky and our resident nutrition editor Sidney Fry joined forces to marry the best of fat's culinary uses with sound nutritional advice. What follows here is an in-depth master class on fat—best practices for the healthy cook, most delicious uses for food lovers, and some surprising findings that just might change the way you cook with this incredible, indispensable ingredient.
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.
We can all agree that butter is the secret to perfect pan sauce for lean and tasty weeknight chicken.
Here, we use this mouthwatering fat to enhance and elevate ultralean chicken breasts. 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.
4 of 17Photo Courtesy of Oxmoor House
2. Chicken Skins
Roasting chicken with the skin on helps trap tasty, natural juices inside, leaving you with moist, tender chicken that has less fat than a roasted skinless, boneless breast. But how? To find out, we tested three pans of seared, roasted chicken breasts. The pan of chicken seared with the skin on, then removed, had the least amount of fat, less than the skinless, boneless chicken breast by about 0.3g fat per 3.5 ounces. As expected, the breast that was seared and analyzed with the skin on had double the fat—6.6g per 3.5 ounces.
While roasting, the fat in the breast flows out and gets trapped in the skin. When the skin is removed after roasting, you are left with a leaner piece of meat that is more tender and more tasty than if it were roasted without the skin.
Rich in monounsaturated fats, olive oil is the golden child of the heart-healthy fats and the workhorse of the healthy kitchen. Plant oils decrease bad LDL cholesterol and raise good HDL cholesterol—a win-win for the body. Along with all veggie-based oils, it is the most calorie-dense food available in our diet. At 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon (oils are 100% fat), calories can add up quickly.
But thanks to its liquidity, a little oil goes a long way. Use it in your everyday sautés, and embrace the finishing ability of this tasty fat by drizzling over fish, whole grains, or crisp greens.
Olive oil is beautifully complex in flavor—a characteristic that gets muted in cooking—so we love it best when the flavor can really shine: drizzled over greens, roasted veggies, or velvety mashed potatoes. We skip the butter in this classic dish and add richness and depth with full-bodied extra-virgin olive oil. The oil saves a hefty 5.4g sat fat per serving over butter and adds a burst of full, fruity flavor when drizzled on top.
Too often, Americans look to the total fat number on the nutrition label, regarding high numbers as an indication of unhealthy food. "It's a myth that eating specifically high-fat foods makes you fat," says Willett. "Eating or drinking more calories than you need from any source, whether it's fat, carbohydrate, protein, or alcohol, can lead to weight gain. Over the past 30 years in the U.S., the percentage of calories from fat has actually gone down, but obesity rates have skyrocketed."
Good fats from plant oils, nuts, fish, and whole grains not only satisfy and keep you full but also protect your heart and support overall health. When reading labels, look past the total fat and instead study the ratio of unsaturated to saturated.
8 of 17Photo: Jennifer Causey
Salmon with Walnut-Avocado Guacamole
The dish contains 32 grams of total fat: That's the amount in three Butterfinger candy bars. But the quality of the food—salmon, walnuts, avocado, olive oil—is premium, fresh, and delicious. You'll walk away happy, satisfied, and comfortably full—a fullness that will last for hours. Bonus: It's fast food, ready in less than 20 minutes.
9 of 17Photo: Charles Masters
5. Ground Beef
Ground beef is a favorite for American red-meat eaters, accounting for 60% of all fresh beef prepared in-home, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Americans eat an average of three burgers per week—50 billion burgers per year. That's a lot of beef and, depending on the mix, a lot of fat.
The more fat in a patty means more fat will drip off on the grill. A 80/20 grind lost the most fat on the grill (an average of 7g fat and 2.9g sat fat per patty), the resulting burger was still left with almost double the sat fat of the leaner 90/10.
Stick with the 90/10 grind for a bigger burger that's just as tasty, with less fat. Bonus: There's still calorie room for a whole-grain bun and fresh toppings, like smashed avocado.
10 of 17Photo: Jennifer Causey
Less than 14% of Americans are eating enough vegetables, according to a July 2015 report from the Centers for Disease Control. On average, most of us are only eating about half the recommended amount of 2 to 3 cups per day. We can do better. It's easy to pick up a piece of whole fruit and chow down; its natural sugars need no complement. But that's not the case with vegetables, which typically require more prep, cooking, and often seasoning. We have a trick to convince families to fill half their dinner plates with vegetables: Add a little bacon.
11 of 17Photo: Jennifer Causey
It may seem counterintuitive, but this flavor bomb infuses maximum yumminess into a pan full of plants. The sizzling fat crisps the vegetables and coats them in a layer of smoky flavor. Bonus: You actually need the fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A and K. So in a way, the bacon makes the plants healthier.
The best part? You don't need much. We coat an entire pound of veggies in just 1 tablespoon of savory, umami-filled bacon fat—about ½ teaspoon fat per hearty 2/3-cup serving.
12 of 17Photo: Iain Bagwell
Omega-3s are abundant in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and halibut, but does the cooking process render out some of this essential fat? And does most of it live in the fatty skin? We tested wild salmon prepared three ways: One left raw for comparison; one cooked and analyzed with the skin on; and the final cooked and analyzed with the skin off.
We found out that the skin does collect fat, and by removing it, you lose about a day's worth of omega-3s (250mg, the average daily intake encouraged by the USDA). However, the meat of the fillet still contains 2,200mg in just 3.5 ounces—nearly nine times the recommended amount. Whether raw, seared, or skinless, fatty fish is full of omega-3s.
13 of 17Photo: Lee Harrelson
8. Animal Fat
When dealing with the fattiest cuts—ribs, chicken wings, pork shoulder—you can trim excess fat before cooking and drain rendered fat during the process, but there's still no way (short of an expensive lab analysis) of knowing exactly how much is left in the meat. That's OK when meat is used as more of a flavor booster. It becomes a problem when meat takes center stage, as it does for most Americans, who eat three times more meat than the global average. Plant-based fats, on the other hand, are not only higher in heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, but they are also more consistent. And there's no guessing game with plant-based fats: A tablespoon of oil will always have 14g fat, as will an ounce of almonds; that number doesn't ever change.
14 of 17Photo: Jennifer Causey
Rib-Eye Steakhouse Salad
You can't control the total amount of fat in animal protein—it will always vary no matter what your cooking method is. But what you can do is prepare fattier, flavor-packed cuts in a smarter way. In our Rib-Eye Steakhouse Salad, we take one supermarket-sized rib-eye steak and use it as an accent to boost a giant salad of mushrooms and leafy greens to serve four people. There's even room for a little cheese. Another tip: Trim the fat and gristle after cooking; our test revealed a 64% total fat loss when we removed the visible fat from the grilled steaks.
Exactly how much fat is absorbed when deep-frying? Does the type of coating make a difference? We lab-tested tilapia two ways: Both dredged in egg white; one lightly coated in flour, and the other in panko. Per 3.5-ounce portion, the flour-coated fried fish absorbed less than a teaspoon of oil, adding only 3g total fat to the lean fish fillet. The panko-coated fish absorbed more than triple the amount of oil for a total fat count of 12.1g. The thinner coating of flour was just the right barrier to keep the fish flaky and moist, absorbing just enough oil to form a crispy coating on the outside.
Here's a general rule: More breading = more fat absorbed.
16 of 17Photo: Jennifer Causey
Crispy Tilapia Tacos
To satisfy your deep-fried desires (and up your fish intake) with less guilt, try our Crispy Tilapia Tacos. The frying process adds only a tablespoon of oil to the 12-ounce portion of lightly floured fish. That portion is then stretched over 8 charred whole-grain tortillas and topped with crunchy slaw and juicy tomatoes. Skip the sour cream—a tablespoon adds nearly as much fat as the frying process and would likely just sog out the crispy coating.
17 of 17Photo Courtesy of Oxmoor House
10. Cooking Spray
Most sprays are labeled as fat-free and calorie-free. FDA labeling laws allow for foods with less than 5 calories or 0.5g fat per serving to be labeled as zero-calorie or fat-free. But the serving size on most sprays is a 1/3-second spray, which, in reality, is really short. It's nearly impossible to coat an entire pan in that amount of time. On average, there's about 1g fat per 1-second spray. You can make your own by filling a mister spray bottle with your favorite cooking oil. A 5-second spray equals about 1 teaspoon of oil for 40 calories and 4.5g fat.
So, cooking sprays and oil misters are great when you need to make a little fat go a long way quickly.