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Fat

An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes

Written by Jennifer McLaganAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jennifer McLagan
Photographed by Leigh BeischAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Leigh Beisch

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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents

Synopsis

For all of history, minus the last thirty years, fat has been at the center of human diets and cultures. When scientists theorized a link between saturated fat and heart disease, industry, media, and government joined forces to label fat a greasy killer, best avoided. But according to Jennifer McLagan, not only is our fat phobia overwrought, it also hasn’t benefited us in any way. Instead it has driven us into the arms of trans fats and refined carbohydrates, and fostered punitive, dreary attitudes toward food–that wellspring of life and pleasure.

In Fat, McLagan sets out with equal parts passion, scholarship, and appetite to win us back to a healthy relationship with animal fats. She starts by defusing fat’s bad rap, both reminding us of what we already know–that fat is fundamental to the flavor of our food–and enlightening us with the many ways fat (yes, even animal fat) is indispensable to our health.

Mostly, though, Fat is about pleasures–the satisfactions of handling good ingredients skillfully, learning the cultural associations of these primal foodstuffs, recollecting and creating personal memories of beloved dishes, and gratifying the palate and the soul with fat’s irreplaceable savor. Fat lavishes the reader with more than 100 recipes from simple to intricate, classic to contemporary, including:

• Butter-Poached Scallops
• Homemade Butter
• Carnitas
• Duck Confit
• Sautéed Foie Gras with Gingered Vanilla Quince
• Prosciutto-Wrapped Halibut with Sage Butter
• Steak and Kidney Pie
• Lamb Fat and Spinach Chapati
• Bacon Spice
• Cookies
• Salted Butter Tart

Observing that though we now know everything about olive oil, we may not know what to do with lard or bone marrow, McLagan offers extensive guidance on sourcing, rendering, flavoring, using, and storing animal fats, whether butter or bacon, schmaltz or suet. Stories, lore, quotations, and tips touching on fat’s place in the kitchen and in the larger culture round out this rich and unapologetic celebration of food at its very best.

Excerpt

1

Butter: Worth It

What could be better than a slice of fresh bread slathered with butter? Rich, buttery shortbread, perhaps? A fish doused in a bath of brown butter and capers? Or simple pan juices enriched with a swirl of butter? In the kitchen, butter is a tasty and very useful fat. Butter melts at just below body temperature, giving it a luscious sensation on the tongue, and it imparts a rich, creamy taste. Just a little butter adds flavor to everything we eat. Butter is also an excellent flavor carrier: spike it with garlic and herbs or sugar and orange and it delivers those flavors to everything it touches.

Butter is unique in the world of fat. Unlike other animal fats, it doesn’t require that we kill an animal to obtain it, and without us it wouldn’t exist. But just what is butter, exactly? The science behind the transformation of liquid milk into a solid fat is not completely understood. Anyone who has been distracted while whipping cream knows how quickly it can turn to butter. Whipped too long, cream changes from a stable foam into a combination of fatty globules and a watery liquid, or buttermilk. Those fatty globules are not pure fat, but an emulsion of butterfat, water, and milk solids. The fat content of butter is naturally about 82 percent–this is the European standard for butter–although it can range up to 86 percent, depending on the cow and its diet. In North America, butter’s minimum fat content is set at 80 percent, so water is often added to lower the butterfat to the legal minimum. What’s in the other 20 percent of butter? Mostly water–around 18 percent, which explains the sizzle when butter hits a hot pan–and the rest is milk solids. Those milk solids will burn in the pan if the butter gets too hot, which is why butter is not the best fat for frying.

Butter is a very complex fat, containing more than 500 fatty acids and 400 volatile compounds, all of which determine its flavor. The breed of cow, its diet, and the season all affect the taste, texture, and look of butter. Most of us have forgotten that butter, like many foods, is seasonal. In spring and early summer, butter is a deeper yellow because the cows eat grass at this time of year, which has a high percentage of orange and yellow carotenes. The pasture is also filled with herbs and flowers, which gives the butter floral and herbal notes. In winter, the cow’s diet is supplemented with silage, so the butter is pale, higher in fat, firmer, and milder in taste. There is a direct link between what the cow eats and the flavor of its butter, but most of us have never tasted herbs or flowers in our butter.

Before the advent of refrigeration, butter shipped to towns and cities was highly salted to preserve it, but it still often went rancid and was sometimes adulterated. Only those who lived in the countryside and churned their own enjoyed the taste of fresh butter. Thankfully, our butter is no longer adulterated, since it is highly regulated and mass-produced, but the same system that guarantees a certain standard also results in a uniformity in both the butter’s color and (lack of) flavor. Our butter is often frozen for long periods of time and may be months old before reaching the store. Butter’s delicate flavor is so easily overwhelmed that most of us don’t know what good, fresh butter from grass-fed cows tastes like.

Good butter is smooth, unctuous, and creamy under the knife and bursts with myriad flavors in the mouth. These flavors, which range from clean, delicate, and sweet to tangy, ripe, and complex, are determined by the taste of the cream and how it is handled and churned. Butter made with fresh cream is milder in flavor, so it is often called “sweet.” It is not sweet like sugar, but it has none of the tang and depth of cultured butter. Cultured butter is made from ripened cream, or cream that has lactic cultures added before churning, giving the butter a more complex taste that is nutty and mildly acidic. These flavors occurred naturally in butter in the past, before pasteurization, but now they must be added back. The longer the cream is ripened, the more developed the butter’s flavor will be. Both sweet and cultured butter can be salted to add taste and to help preserve it. Salt is sometimes also used to mask off tastes. The amount of salt added varies from almost nothing to 3 percent. Salted butter can have a lower fat content than unsalted, and for that reason unsalted butter is often specified in recipes. Higher-fat butters, with their lower water content, are firmer and better for cooking and baking. Using unsalted butter also allows the cook to control the amount of salt added to a recipe. Salted butter is often regarded as inferior, but this is not always true. A small amount of salt, used in what the French call demi-sel, or lightly salted, butter, can enhance the flavor of both the butter and whatever is mixed with it. If you doubt it, try lightly salted butter on toast with jam; the way the salt in the butter intensifies the fruit’s sweetness is a revelation. There is a long tradition of salted butter in Brittany, the only region of France that uses salted butter exclusively, even for baking and desserts. Salted butter is currently enjoying a renaissance elsewhere, too. It’s not just fine sea salt that can be added to butter; large, irregular salt crystals can be folded into the butter at the end of the churning, giving the butter an almost gritty texture. When this butter melts in your mouth or on your fish or potatoes, those salt crystals burst on your tongue, highlighting the butter’s taste.

French butter has long been considered the butter benchmark, and several French butters have achieved AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) status, like many French wines and cheeses. These butters express what the French call terroir, or a unique essence of place, and you can tell them apart by their taste. These AOC butters, which come from the regions of Charentes-Poitou and Normandy, are made using the cream from pasture-fed cows that is ripened for a minimum of twelve hours. The cream is churned slowly in small batches and is often finished by hand, giving the butter a superior flavor and texture. Many gourmets regard Echiré butter, which is still made in wooden churns, as the best butter in the world. The French, however, don’t have a monopoly on good butter, and many small producers in other European countries and the United States are producing high-quality, distinctive, and tasty butter.

Rich, fatty, and full of calories and cholesterol, butter hasn’t received any good press in a long time. Butter is a mainly saturated fat (see below), and unless it is clarified (see page 23), it is less useful for cooking than other mainly saturated fats because of its milk solids. Although those milk solids limit the usefulness of butter for cooking, they are the reason butter is such a flavorful fat. Many of butter’s saturated fatty acids are short- and medium-chain ones, which means our body uses them up quickly rather than storing them on our hips. Many of butter’s fatty acids are also very good for us: lauric and butyric acids boost our immune system, while stearic and palmitic acids lower our LDL cholesterol. Butter contains the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, plus copper, zinc, chromium, selenium, iodine, and lecithin, so butter is actually good for us.

Note: These figures are approximate and vary with the breed and diet of the cow. The numbers don’t total 100, since butter also contains water and milk solids.

To enjoy the benefits of butter you must eat the best you can buy. Good butter not only tastes better, but it is better for you. Butter from pasture-fed cows has omega-3 fatty acids, which we need more of in our diet. Butter has the natural trans fat conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which behaves like omega-3 fatty acid in our body and is reputed to protect against heart disease, cancer, and weight gain. Butter shouldn’t taste only of fat, but also of what the cows ate. We should be able to savor the grass, the herbs, and the flowers. While we are all willing to spend a small fortune on deluxe olive oils, we grab a pound of butter without thinking.

Next time you eat butter, really taste it. Cut a thick slice, smell it, and place it on your tongue. Let it melt in your mouth and savor its taste. Remember how special butter is in the world of fat.


Keeping and Using Butter

Whether salted or not, butter is perishable, and it begins to slowly deteriorate from the moment it is made. Although it is mainly saturated fat, which tends to turn rancid more slowly, those milk solids in butter speed up the process.

Freshly churned butter once had a cachet, and many food lovers went to extreme lengths to make sure they could enjoy it daily. In Normandy, butter was churned very early every morning, then rushed to the breakfast tables of discriminating and no doubt late-rising Parisians. Today, you probably won’t be able to taste truly fresh butter unless you know someone who makes his or her own butter or you churn it yourself (see page 21).

Homemade or not, your butter should be refrigerated and well wrapped to protect it from light and any strong odors. Butter will absorb any odors that are circulating in your refrigerator. If your refrigerator is full of truffles from Périgord, you’ll end up with truffle-flavored butter, which would be great, unless you were planning to bake shortbread. As for using the butter compartment in your refrigerator: don’t. By keeping the butter at a warmer temperature than the rest of the refrigerator and exposing it to oxygen, it just speeds up the butter’s decline. Butter can, however, be frozen.


A History of Butter

Humans have been eating butter for a very long time. The domestication of goats, sheep, and cows began in Mesopotamia and Romania sometime between 9000 and 8000 b.c. Although these animals were initially raised for their meat, those keeping them no doubt quickly learned how to use their milk. The leap from herding animals for meat to milking them is a big one, however, and no one is sure exactly when it happened.

Sumerian temple friezes from 2500 b.c. depict scenes of butter churning, so it has generally been accepted that butter is at least 4,500 years old. However, science has recently proved that butter is even older than that. Traces of butterfat found on pottery fragments have been dated to 4000 b.c., proving humans have been making butter for at least 6,000 years. There is no way to know how butter was first discovered, and its genesis is part of food folklore. A popular legend relates how a traveler carrying milk arrived at his journey’s end not with the thick, creamy milk he’d started with, but a thin, watery liquid full of lumps of fat. His bumpy journey had churned his milk into butter. While butter’s discovery was probably just such a lucky accident, it was also a momentous one. That a liquid could be transformed into a solid bestowed on butter a very special status. From its very beginnings butter was never simply a food; it was also considered a formidable medicine and a useful cosmetic. Many thought it had magical powers and was a worthy sacrifice to the gods.

Although butter keeps longer than milk does, it is still highly perishable, especially in warmer climates. Ever resourceful, humans discovered they could prolong butter’s life by cooking or salting it. In India and the Middle East, butter was heated and the milk solids removed, preventing it from turning rancid. In India, ghee is as important for its role in religious ceremonies as it is as a food. Around the Mediterranean, where other fats and oil were available for cooking, butter was often reserved for external use. In fact, in many cultures the idea of eating butter was ridiculous; it was considered something only a barbarian would do. In his Natural History, Pliny discusses butter’s medicinal properties and refers to it as “the most delicate food among barbarous nations” (though he points out that it is not something a Roman would eat). The majority of people who ate their butter in its solid state lived in the cooler climes of northern Europe and the grasslands of Central Asia, where butter lasted better and the abundant pastures provided food for the animals. The Vikings and Celts who spread butter culture throughout northern Europe also valued butter’s medicinal qualities, and their word for “butter” and “ointment” was the same. Even though butter kept longer in northern Europe, it still went rancid, and there was a continual search for ways to prolong its freshness. By 1000 b.c. the Celts were mining salt in Central Europe and realized that adding salt helped their butter keep, while those living in Ireland, Scotland, and Scandinavia preserved their butter by burying it in peat bogs (see page 35).

Table of Contents

Contents

Introduction: A Matter of Fat - 1


1 Butter: Worth It - 13

2 Pork Fat: The King - 67

3 Poultry Fat: Versatile and Good for You - 123

4 Beef and Lamb Fats: Overlooked but Tasty - 167


Bibliography - 219

Acknowledgments - 223

Index - 226
Jennifer McLagan

About Jennifer McLagan

Jennifer McLagan - Fat

Photo © Rob Fiocca

Jennifer McLagan is a chef and food stylist and writer who has worked in Toronto, London, and Paris as well as her native Australia. Her previous books, Bones (2005) and Fat (2007) were both widely acclaimed and each won Beard and IACP awards. Jennifer is a regular contributor to Fine Cooking and Food & Drink. She has lived in Toronto for more than thirty years with her sculptor husband, Haralds Gaikis, with whom she escapes to Paris as often as possible. On both sides of the Atlantic, Jennifer maintains friendly relations with her butchers, who put aside their best fat, bones, and odd bits for her. Visit www.jennifermclagan.com.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Pork, poultry, beef, butter: here is a delicious ode to fat in its many forms and functions. From bacon baklava to beurre blanc, Jennifer McLagan proves that all fat is not created equal, and that eating healthfully should not be an exercise in self-denial.”
–Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Restaurant

“Like cars, we all need lubrication, except ours is ideally taken in the form of pork fat. Fat is where the flavor lies. What a treat this book is–a proper celebration of the good bits.”
–Fergus Henderson, author of The Whole Beast

“I love this book! There are very few cookbooks published today that add something truly new and distinctive to the literature of food and cooking. Jennifer McLagan’s Fat is smart and thoughtful–it ultimately asks us to understand our food better.”
–Michael Ruhlman, coauthor of Charcuterie

“Hurrah! Jennifer McLagan joins the charge to restore honest-to-goodness fat to its rightful place in our kitchens and culture, and she does so intelligently, insightfully, and deliciously. Her new book, Fat, is a must in any serious cook’s library.”
–Molly Stevens, author of All About Braising

Awards

WINNER 2009 James Beard Award
WINNER 2009 IACP Cookbook Award
Jennifer McLagan

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