guys, let's talk about fat.
fat's the best thing we've got in the kitchen. it's delicious, it makes breads softer and more delicate, it emulsifies with sugar into fantastic and smooth creations, and, above all else, it protects food while it cooks.
but the biggest issue i've noticed while going through school is how afraid we are of oil. how much is too much? was it too little? will i set it on fire?
the answers are, as follows, more than that, add a bit more, and not very likely. you see, the flash point of oils is much, much higher than we all tend to instinctively think it is. the adage of where there's smoke there's fire? not actually true in this instance and that's the fun part. i want you, when cooking, to get your oil to literally smoking hot. as soon as you see it shimmer and hit that smoke point, as soon as your oil is as runny as water and swishes about the bottom of the pan, that is when you're really ready to add your protein. never before.
so, what is a smoke point? it's the temperature at which a fat begins to break down and release smoke. beyond that, well beyond that, is a fat's flash point, or the temperature at which an oil will burst into flame. ignore that one. i've literally only seen it happen once, when my father was cooking and walked away from oil heating in a pan for well over five minutes. the singe marks on the ceiling were there for weeks.
but that's not going to happen to you because you're going to pay attention to your pan. you're going to catch that smoke point.
why is this important? ever put a pan on the stove with some oil in it and cooked something? what you're doing is sauteing, defined by the professional chef as "foods cooked quickly in a small amount of oil over direct heat". let's also talk about what sauteing is not -
- sauteing is not searing because the item is completely cooked through.
- sauteing is not pan-frying because less oil is used.
sauteing requires that the oil be hot in order to minimize sticking of the protein to the pan. meat naturally has tiny proteins that are unfolded in a specific way. the aim is to get the oil hot enough so that the proteins cook in the moments where the meat passes through the hot air and oil before actually hitting the metal surface of the pan. this causes the proteins to curl in on each other and away from the pan. also, it makes for a really crisp and delicious crust.
one of the things that drives me absolutely crazy about most recipes i come across is the suggestion to start a pan over high heat with a bit of olive oil in it. i can just picture chef ana coming at me with a giant pan screaming 'no!'. so, why is that a bad idea and what can i do instead?
the reason is, of course, the smoke point.
olive oil - 350°
extra virgin olive oil - 325°
canola oil - 400°
grapeseed oil - 390°
peanut oil - 450°
sunflower oil - 440°
safflower oil - 510°
sesame oil - 350°
vegetable oil - 450°
butter - 325°
clarified butter - 485°
sauteing generally uses a temperature of around 350-400 degrees, right in that sweet spot where olive oil is going to begin break down if you keep heating it further. in class we generally use canola oil or clarified butter (you haven't lived until you've smelled 40 pounds of melted butter on the stovetop), at home i tend to reach for either canola or grapeseed, whichever is handier.
do you have a preference on cooking fat? keep a tub of duckfat in your freezer (if so, call me, i'll come right over with potatoes and beer)? stories about singeing your eyebrows off?
want to try a recipe to practice your saute skills? check out skate meunière!