About Me
I'm a Melbourne boy, hailing from St Kilda with one ex, one current wife and four kids. Love the outdoors and making new discoveries. I cook a lot at home (cheers from wife) and do some preserving, mostly jams, pickles and fruit liqueurs. This is the diary of a cooking journey.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Does Fat Mean Flavour?
If you watch enough cooking shows, you would have most certainly heard the term, sort of a television cook’s mantra – fat is flavour, usually when there is some fat appearing in their recipes, possibly to assuage one's guilt about eating it. But really, do they make you want to nip down to the local supermarket, buy a tub of lard and pop great dripping spoonfuls into your mouth to experience this so called flavour? Probably not. So what are all those cooks really talking about when they say fat is flavour?

First, it’s important to understand a little about fats and oils too, which both belong to the same group of chemical compounds, the triglycerides and differ from each other, according to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, only in their melting points – fats are solid at room temperature whilst oils are liquid, so in this article, fat refers to both fat and oil. He then goes on to say that fat’s fundamental purpose is simply to store energy and that it’s twice as efficient at storing it as carbohydrates, the other major source of energy for all living organisms.

Because fat is so efficient at storing energy, it has become the primary means by which all animals store energy for later use. If, for instance, humans were forced to switch to carbohydrate storage there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the average woman would put on extra 13kg in weight, to store exactly the same amount of energy as fat currently does. It should come as no surprise therefore, with something so good at storing energy as animal fat, that its chemical structure bears a strong resemblance to other simpler, concentrated hydrocarbons such as petroleum. One powers our cars, the other, our bodies.

Fat is also essential to our overall health, we couldn’t survive without it as certain fatty acids are part of the building blocks of our very cells and are also necessary for bodily function. Our bodies are unable to synthesize some of these fatty acids, which we must obtain from our diet.

So it would seem obvious as to why humans developed a taste for fat, it is the highest quality and most concentrated fuel available - eating it is the equivalent of siphoning someone else’s petrol tank. But it’s also more than that. Besides that we enjoy its interplay with other foods, because of the extremely high temperatures fats are capable of, it also allows us to cook food in a way that contributes to both taste and texture – think of a golden, crunchy, fried potato chip or a simple pan fried steak with a delectable brown crust.

Think you don’t like foods fried in animal fats? Think again. It was only a couple of years ago that McDonalds stopped frying their world famous fries in beef tallow after a public outcry. But they didn’t change frying fats until after they were able to replicate the taste of fries cooked in tallow, so popular these fries were.

Fat also has another characteristic; it carries flavour compounds which it helps coat the taste buds with. Think of how the taste of bacon tends to linger a while in the mouth, as the fat, which carries both the flavour of cured pork and smoke, helps to hold the flavour on your taste buds, allowing you to savour the bacon long after it has begun its journey to your stomach. Fat also carries the flavours of a salad dressing and holds them in place as it coats all the salad leaves and other ingredients.

But for all that, is fat really flavour in the way television cooks mean it? I’m not so sure. There is no doubt that many common fats and oils have a flavour all their own, such as beef, lamb and duck fat, as well as olive, walnut and hazelnut oils and there is no doubt they contribute to dishes to which they are added, but their taste is far from the primary flavour of a dish, with perhaps the only exception, some seed and nut oils that dominate the taste of milder salad leaves.

If fat were flavour, wouldn’t a chicken raised in a cage, with all its extra fat, taste better than a free-range bird with hardly any fat at all? It’s quite the opposite in fact. Glenloth, a Victorian supplier of free-range chicken, use exactly the same breed of birds as those raised in cages in battery farms, the only real differences between them is the type of feed used and access to open spaces, yet comparing their birds to battery farmed is like chalk and cheese. Glenloth birds have well developed meaty flesh with an almost gamey flavour; those from cages have flaccid flesh which barely contains any real chicken identity, the extra fat contributes nothing at all flavour wise.

That exercise adds flavour is easily demonstrated with beef. Eye fillet is regarded as the premium cut, due to its tenderness, yet compared to other cuts from harder working muscles, it lacks mightily for flavour - this particular muscle does little work. The important difference between muscles that do little and those which work much harder, is the amount of connective tissue present, there is far more in a working muscle, the collagen of which acts similarly to fat, in that it melts into the surrounding tissue when cooked. And perhaps this combination of fat, muscle and connective tissue has far more to with flavour than any one part alone.

So why do television presenters persist with the fat is flavour mantra? It comes down to mouth feel and texture. Fat lubricates meat for example, making it easier to chew as muscle fibres slip apart and also makes it seem juicy at the same time. Have you ever noticed how a lean cut of meat such as veal, seems to become dry after very little chewing and how we place a premium on well marbled steak, waygu being the supreme example? At the same time, fat is also carrying flavours to all parts of your mouth and helping to keep them there. It's the reason why we like to butter our bread

It is this double whammy effect that fat gives to our food that makes it seem extra tasty. Fat is flavour? Not really, but food just wouldn’t be the same without it.
  posted at 11:05 am

At 1:10 pm, Blogger Kalyn said...

Hooray for fat. Food just wouldn't be the same without it. (And more and more science is proving extreme low fat is not healthy either. Whew, thank goodness for that.)

At 1:46 pm, Blogger MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Oooo lovely picture: spooning scoops of lard to eat!!
Food wouldn't be the same without.
13Kilos you say, as short as I am that would really be alot!

Can you believe I've started another crock?

At 9:08 pm, Blogger thanh7580 said...

Great post Neil. I agree with you that pure fat isn't flavour. Imaginig a whole tub of lard has put me off already. But meats without the fat really doesn't taste the same. I always like the cuts with more fat. With steaks, I'd rather go the cheaper porterhouse than the eye fillet every time. I just love the way the fat helps to bring out all the flavours in the steak. And don't get me started on wagyu. I only wished I had the money to eat more of it.

At 11:13 pm, Blogger Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

We have been made (by whom? the medical profession?) to fear many things that are actually necessary for good health, for our bodies to work well. Avoid salt, we're told. Cut out all fat. Don't eat sugar. Our bodies need these things, in moderation. And if it makes our food taste better, that's a bonus!

At 7:46 am, Blogger katiez said...

One of the things that irritates my about the T.V. chefs is their continued use of wrong or incorrect information - I suppose just because it's easier than explaining.
My mother always fried potatoes in bacon fat - and they were wonderful.. but the flavor came from the salt and curing process. Plain old pork fat is pretty insipid...
I dislike eating fat (except bacon) but I wouldn't consider cooking without it! Besides, I have to have something to give the girl dogs....

At 8:25 am, Blogger neil said...

Hi kalyn, I think you nailed it right there, nothing would be the same without fat and of course, we do need it in our diet just to be healthy.

Hi tanna, my wife likes nothing better than spreading leftover pork roast fat on bread instead of butter. It does taste pretty good too!

Hi thanh, I'll tell you a secret - I've never tried waygu, s'pose I will one day, but I'm dead keen on the cheaper cuts, rump and oyster blade are two faves.

Hi lydia, that's exactly it. There are plenty of people and organizations with agendas, we'd all go crazy if we listened to them all.

Hi katiez, I think in this case, it might have been more about getting people to try and not be afraid of food with fat, but of course, that's always open to misinterpretation.

At 10:15 am, Blogger gigi said...

Fat Love! Me old mum, who lived to be 93 and weighed all of 113lbs at her heaviest would spoon up the browned fats from the bottom of pans and skillets with gusto, always telling me it was 'the best part'; she would no more cook without oil or butter than pass up a piece of chocolate. As in all things, moderation is the key. If only I'd listened... ;)

At 7:21 am, Anonymous ntsc said...

Pork fat, properly cured is supposed to be quite good.

A schmaltz (rendered chicken fat)is tasty.

Found your blog via 'Get your Grill on'.

At 12:58 am, Blogger Kathy Farrelly said...

I just love the fat and skin on meat Neil.
Always eat the crispy skin off bbq chicken. Love pork crackling.
Ditto skin off a roast leg of lamb.
Just love the marrow in the bones too!(How can one not love marrow!)
I am not fat, do not have high cholesterol, and (cause I excercise) am very fit for my age.

Everything in moderation.

Oh, and I eat eight to ten eggs a week for breakfast. (and am luvin' it)

At 8:51 pm, Blogger Jeanne said...

Speaking as someone who used to steal cubes of butter off her mother's dinner table just to let them melt decadently in her mouth, I feel qualified to comment on this post ;-) I agree that (salted butter aside!), fat per se isn't flavour, but for me it certainly is texture. Pork crackling, crispy fat on BBQd lamb chops, chicken skin... I could carry on but let's not! And then there's browned butter on trout or spectacular olive oil on plain salad leaves. By itself it's not flavour, but as you say it adds texture and enhances our experience of other foods. And as Kalyn says - thank goodness medical science is now telling us to eat SOME fat!!

At 10:13 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Neil,
It's great to see such an established blog with a faithful following. From having a look at recent posts, your entries are interesting and personable - a great read!

When you get the chance, you really must try some wagyu beef - it's delicious!! :)


At 4:48 am, Anonymous White On Rice Couple said...

What a great read...bravo for fat! But everything in moderation here and I appreciate the reminder that it isn't always the fat that flavors the food.
What a fun site you have here, I must read on....

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