Italians preach olive oil. The French love butter. The American fast-food industry swears by beef tallow. And among home cooks, there are as many different views on the right shortening for the perfect pie crust as there are debates on pizza crust.
Complicating this chauvinism are current health messages to substitute saturated animal fats with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated vegetable oils, as well as reduce consumption of all types of fat.
In translating the scientific advice to the kitchen, it comes down to a balancing act -- a combination of moderation, trade-offs and taste.
Some people would rather pass up fried chicken than do without mayonnaise. Others prefer a small amount of butter on their toast to a larger pat of margarine.
Perhaps the best advice, then, is to not only minimize your total consumption of fats and oils, but to vary them so that you don't overload on any one kind. And start by cutting back on fats and oils in foods where it doesn't make that much of a difference to you.
The questions then become where and when different oils can be juggled in cooking, what kinds of fats taste better or work better in certain dishes and how they can all be minimized so that flavor and food chemistry are not sacrificed.
Here are a few tips on how to do it, but first a quick review of the saturation facts:
*Saturated fats -- butter, coconut oil, palm oil, lard, tallow.
*Monounsaturated fats -- olive, peanut oils, some margarines.
*Polyunsaturated fats -- sesame, corn, safflower and soybean oils, some margarines. Saute'ing
It's not a new method to saute' foods in a combination of butter and olive oil. The oil prevents the butter from burning, while at the same time a butter flavor is retained.
In the interest of health, this method also halves the amount of saturated fat. And to further minimize the amount of both used -- while still retaining flavor and browning -- Judith Hurley, supervisor of culinary arts at Rodale Press, suggests first spraying a nonstick skillet with a vegetable oil spray. For instance, for a pound of veal on a nonstick-sprayed skillet, Hurley suggests using 1 1/2 teaspoons of butter and 1 1/2 teaspoons of olive oil.
Alternately, to saute' onions or celery before combining them with other ingredients, Atlanta-based cooking teacher Shirley Corriher suggests spraying a nonstick skillet with vegetable oil spray. Take waxed paper and crumple it on top of the vegetables as they cook, suggests Corriher, and they will soften or partially cook. The paper holds the moisture right against the food, so that it actually cooks in its own moisture, she said. (This is similiar to cooking with a top, but is more effective, since the waxed paper is right next to the food as opposed to three inches above.)
The waxed-paper method will work without any vegetable oil spray in the pan as well, Corriher said. Keep the heat on low, however. Deep-Frying
If you choose to deep-fry foods, there are ways to minimize oil absorption to get a crisper, less greasy final product. The water content in food turns to steam during deep-frying, according to Corriher. As long as steam is rushing out of the food, there is no way that oil can soak in; as soon as the moisture in the food has been expended, the oil seeps in. (It may, in fact, be unwise to salt foods such as eggplant before deep-frying them, suggests Corriher, since the process leeches out the water, giving the oil a ready path during cooking.)
Although "once the sizzle stops, it's too late," Corriher says, the crucial factors for effective deep-frying are time, temperature and surface area of the food. Foods deep-fried at too low a temperature absorb more fat, although foods fried at too-high temperatures will brown on the outside too quickly without properly cooking the inside.
Many cooks prefer to use peanut oil for deep-frying, although soy, corn and cottonseed oils all have the same smoking point (in this case, 450 degrees, the temperature at which oil is damaged for frying). This smoking point is more than 100 degrees higher than the temperature necessary to fry most foods. In addition, these oils have high flash point temperatures (625 degrees, the temperature at which sparks appear) and fire points (685 degrees, the temperature at which the oil flames.) Baking
According to Hurley, substituting polyunsaturated oils for butter in baking works better for cakes or quick breads than for short pastries. For 1 cup butter, substitute 3/4 cup oil, or 1/4 less oil, Hurley says.
When a solid shortening such as butter is creamed together with sugar, Corriher says, air and bubbles are incorporated into the mixture. Baking powder then enlarges the bubbles in the fat and the cake rises. According to Corriher, you can get better leavening action by using solid shortening. Oils will give a moister, heavier taste to a cake, butter a lighter product.
Robin Rifkin, a Philadelphia cooking teacher who stresses low-fat techniques, suggests cutting the amount of butter in a recipe in half and substituting beaten egg whites. Sauces and Marinades
Butter is an emulsion, says Corriher, and that makes it effective for making beurre blanc, since the fat and water stay emulsified up to about 160 degrees. With margarine, however, the emulsion would break at a much lower temperature, according to Corriher, making it unsuitable for a butter emulsion sauce. (If you crave beurre blanc, eat less, would be the message from this one.)
In making a light or medium-colored roux, on the other hand, polyunsaturated fats such as safflower oil may be substituted, Corriher says.
In the case of marinades, Corriher says that Crisco oil contains trace amounts of emulsifiers, which seem to penetrate food better, although most oils are interchangeable for this purpose. %The Salad Bowl
People use "way too much" salad dressing, contends Corriher, who added that it takes a surprisingly small amount of dressing to make a well-seasoned salad. The over-oiling may be a factor that interestingly may have to do with the wetness of the lettuce, Corriher contends. Many people don't effectively dry their lettuce after washing it, she says. As a result, the water dilutes the dressing and prevents it from properly adhering to the leaves. It takes a half-cup worth of watered-down dressing to coat a salad that could take less than half that amount, Corriher says. If lettuce is dried well ("wipe it in a turkish towel"), it shouldn't need much dressing, Corriher says.
If you want to cut down the amount of oil in a salad dressing proportionate to the amount of vinegar, don't use more vinegar, cautions Corriher. Either dilute it with water or add a little wine in its place.
And, adds Hurley, a lot of the flavored oils on the market (walnut, hazelnut, etc.) are more pungent than regular vegetable oils. As a result, less is necessary to make a dressing that will sufficiently flavor a salad.
We're being "pasta-saladed to death," says Rifkin, who contends that the amount of oil added to these salads can be cut considerably -- and with better taste results. Rifkin suggests counteracting the vinegar in lower-oil salad dressings with apple juice and thickening it with a little arrowroot so that it will stick to the pasta. Or, alternately, make a low-fat pasta salad dressing with yogurt, mustard and apple juice.
And if you really like Italian dressing, adds Rifkin, make it creamy by adding yogurt. It will also dilute the amount of oil. No-Fat Cooking
Saute'ing in stock, vinegar or juice is becoming a popular method for those wishing to eliminate all fats in cooking. (Hurley even says you can saute' ground beef with an ice cube; as the ice cube melts, the steam is forced out, which helps cook the meat.)
Hurley has used various combinations of stocks and juices for saute'ing: apple juice and chicken stock for a sweeter flavor, or a mixture of one part vinegar to two parts stock. As for quantity, she suggests using about three or four times the amount of liquid as the amount of fat called for in the recipe. Hurley recommends adding the liquid as you need it, not all at once.
In addition, for stews or soups, using oil to saute' the onions or celery can virtually be eliminated. Either the vegetables can be cooked in stock or wine, or they can be steamed in the base of a vegetable steamer, says Hurley, which makes them taste sweeter.
For spicy Szechwan dishes, however, Rifkin sticks with a small amount of oil, because she contends that stock or wine does not sufficiently "pull" the flavors from hot peppers. If she doesn't use oil, she will double the amount of garlic, ginger or hot peppers to give it a fuller flavor minus the oil.
As for foods that are marinated without oil and then grilled, Hurley suggests wrapping the fish or chicken in aluminum foil to retain moisture.
Keep in mind, says Rifkin, that fat keeps foods hotter in temperature, so if you have cooked something without fat, it should be served immediately.
Here are some recipes that juggle quantities and types of oils, without sacrificing flavor. JUDITH HURLEY'S BETTER BUTTER (Makes about 1/2 cup)
Hurley cuts the amount of saturated fat in butter in half by substituting half safflower oil in this lighter, flavored butter.
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup safflower oil
1/2 cup onions, finely minced
1 tablespoon chili powder or more to taste
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Combine softened butter and safflower oil in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. In a small saucepan, saute' onions in 1 tablespoon of the butter-oil mixture. When golden, add chili powder and vinegar and combine. Scoop chili mixture into the bowl of the processor and add remaining butter-oil mixture. Process until combined. At this point, the mixture may appear to be too thin, but will solidify when refrigerated. Be sure to stir before refrigerating so that onions do not sink to the bottom. Serve with grilled fish, poached chicken or rice, or toss with vegetables.
Variations: Add 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon crushed dried herbs in place of chili powder. Use lemon juice instead of apple cider vinegar (i.e., lemon thyme butter), or leeks, scallions or chives instead of onions. From "Stocking Up III" (Rodale Press, $24.95) SHIRLEY CORRIHER'S SAFFLOWER OIL MAYONNAISE (Makes 1 cup)
According to Robert Reeves, director of the Institute of Shortenings and Edible Oils, most commercial mayonnaises are made with soybean oil. Corriher's recipe uses safflower oil, which is slightly less saturated. It also uses less egg than do other homemade mayonnaises, and for added flavor, Corriher uses more dry mustard.
1 egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup safflower oil
In a blender or bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, process the egg, salt, mustard and lemon juice for 1 minute. With processor running, very slowly drizzle in the oil in a thin stream. Continue pouring in oil and processing, until mayonnaise thickens and all oil is used. ROBIN RIFKIN'S BUCKWHEAT PASTA SALAD (2 main course servings or 4 side dish servings)
A teacher of low-fat cooking methods, Rifkin believes that pasta salads are invariably over-oiled. When Rifkin (who keeps oil to an absolute minimum in most recipes, or sometimes omits it entirely) uses oil, she chooses sesame because of its flavor. In addition, Rifkin uses a stronger flavored pasta to add additional flavor. Also, the garlic and ginger are saute'ed in the vinegar and sherry instead of using extra oil.
7 ounces buckwheat or whole wheat pasta*
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry
2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
3 scallions, chopped, with green tops included
1/2 cup chopped cucumber
1 red bell pepper, cut into strips
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Freshly grated black pepper to taste
Cook noodles and drain. Saute' garlic and ginger in the sherry and vinegar. Add tamari and oil. Add scallions. Toss with noodles, cucumbers, bell pepper and parsley. Season with black pepper.
*Available at health food stores. CARMEN JONES' CHICKEN PANNE (4 to 6 servings)
Although extra-virgin olive oils are often used to add a fuller flavor to salad dressings or marinades, Texas cooking teacher Carmen Jones uses it to saute' the chicken in this recipe to add a richer flavor to the finished dish.
6 to 8 split chicken breasts, boned
3/4 cup finely chopped almonds
1 cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled
Extra-virgin olive oil for saute'ing
Place boned chicken breasts between layers of foil. Pound with mallet, side of a chef's cleaver or bottom of a heavy pan to flatten. Cut into long narrow strips, approximately 1 1/4 inches wide. Beat eggs in a shallow bowl. Combine almonds, crumbs, lemon peel and pepper in shallow bowl. Dip each strip into egg mixture first, then into bread-crumb mixture. Chill breaded strips until ready to serve.
Heat garlic in enough olive oil to cover the bottom of a skillet. When garlic is lightly browned, remove and discard. Saute' chicken strips a few at a time, until light brown, over medium heat. Use additional oil if needed. Serve immediately. PAUL PRUDHOMME'S RABBIT JAMBALAYA (6 to 8 servings)
Prudhomme uses margarine in several of his recipes because he says it contains more oil than butter and better caramelizes vegetables. The amount of margarine used here has been reduced from Prudhomme's original recipe, although the more oil-conscious may want to reduce it even further, being careful not to burn the vegetables.
3-pound rabbit or chicken, cut into serving pieces
FOR THE SEASONING MIX:
2 whole bay leaves
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
FOR THE JAMBALAYA:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) margarine
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onions
1 1/2 cups finely chopped celery
1 1/2 cups finely chopped green bell pepper
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
1/2 pound smoked ham, chopped
3/4 cup canned tomato sauce
2 cups uncooked rice
3 cups rabbit or chicken stock
Cut meat away from rabbit and chop into 1/4-inch pieces; use scraps, bones and giblets (excluding the liver) to make a stock. Refrigerate meat until ready to use.
Combine the seasoning mix ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
Melt the margarine in a 3-quart saucepan. Add 3/4 cup each of the onions, celery and bell pepper; then stir in the seasoning mix, hot pepper sauce and smoked ham. Cook over high heat about 20 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the remaining 3/4 cup each of onions, celery and bell pepper. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomato sauce and simmer about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the rabbit and cook over high heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the rice, mixing well. Reduce heat and simmer for about 12 minutes. Add the stock. Bring the mixture to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, over very low heat until rice is tender but still firm, about 15 minutes.
To serve, mold rice in an 8-ounce cup. Place 2 cups on each serving plate.
Adapted from "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen," by Paul Prudhomme (Morrow, $19.95) PAN DOLCE DI PUGLIA (Sweet Bread Puglia Style) (Makes a 9-inch loaf)
This Italian tea cake uses olive oil as its shortening. The oil gives the cake a moist and flavorful taste. In addition, a cake is also an untraditional vehicle for balancing consumption more toward monounsaturated fat.
2 1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup raisins
Grated rind of 1/2 lemon
Sift 2 1/2 cups flour into a mixing bowl with salt and baking powder. Add sugar, eggs, milk and oil. Beat with an electric mixer. Sprinkle remaining tablespoon of flour on a paper towel and roll raisins about in it until they are well coated. Add floured raisins and lemon rind to batter. Pour batter into well-greased and floured 9-inch loaf pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes.
From "La Dolce Cucina," by Anna Bruni Seldis (Collier, $2.95)