In today’s low-cal, low-fat crazed world, this article title seems simply wrong. But fat has its role in the kitchen and certainly on the grill.
I realize that in today’s low-cal, low-fat crazed world, the above title seems simply wrong. We have been indoctrinated with the understanding that fat is at the root of our dietary woes. Fat is not our friend, but rather our enemy—the diet buster. Indeed, excess fat in the diet can lead to some problems and there are certainly times to eat delicious, low fat foods (i.e. a really well prepared salad in all its glory or perfectly steamed vegetables when they are perfectly fresh and in season). But fat has its role in the kitchen and certainly on the grill.
It makes meat moist. Melted fat gives us the impression of moisture. This is an interesting fact since fat is not water but still makes things taste moist. For a great example how this happens, compare dry toast and toast spread with butter. The melted butter/toast combination is much moister and satisfying.
There are 2 basic types of fat in meat. The fat on the outside of a muscle and the fat on the inside of the muscle. Fat on the outside of the muscle is certainly less important in most instances than fat on the inside. For instance, trimming the fat cap from a steak will not affect the texture or flavor of the steak appreciably one way or the other. At the same time, removing the skin from a chicken breast will remove some fat calories, but at the same time make for a drier result. The fat in the chicken skin bastes the meat as it cooks.
The fat on the inside of the meat is called marbling and is the flecks of fat interspersed among the muscle. As the meat cooks, this fat melts and melts directly in the middle of the muscle. This contributes greatly to the moisture of the finished steak. This also explains why very lean cuts of meat turn dry so quickly—there is simply not enough fat make it moist. This also explains why a prime cut of beef which is laden with marbling is so juicy.
It makes food flavorful. The simple fact here is that fat is inherently flavorful. Chefs throughout history have used fatty ingredients to add a big flavor hit to different recipes. Just think of ingredients like butter, cream, bacon, olive oil, and country ham. In proteins, the more fat, the bigger the flavor. This is true of meats as well as fish. Fatty fish like blue fish, sardines, and mackerel have decidedly impactful flavor profiles. When it comes to poultry, the fattier leg and thigh have more flavor than the breast. In meat, the more fat, the more intense the meaty flavor. In fact, it is the flavor of the fat that makes lamb taste like lamb, beef taste like beef, etc. One criticism of pork in recent years is that in an effort to make pork as lean as possible, too much fat has been bred out of the animal. The result, pork that doesn’t have a rich pork flavor. This is why chefs are increasingly going back to heritage breeds of pig. They are looking for the flavor of years gone by.
It makes meat tenderer. Intramuscular fat (marbling) is scattered throughout the meat. This means that it tends to physically get in the way of the protein strands. The more marbling, the tenderer the meat will be.
It prevents sticking. There are two ways that fat prevents sticking—fat on the outside and fat on the inside. Coating low-fat foods with fat before they hit the grill is essential to prevent sticking. Rubbing vegetables with olive oil improves their flavor and prevents sticking. Coating chicken breasts and especially fish fillets (generously coated!) with oil will help them to not adhere to the grates.
Fat on the inside of the proteins (fish included) help them not stick to the grill as they cook. This is why fatty fish traditionally grill so well and support the rich flavors of the grill. Even though you may want to coat the outside of these fatty fish with some oil, the fat inside the fish will keep them moist, give them a full flavor, and help to prevent sticking.
Fat is your friend is an expression I have heard uttered by many chefs over the year (including me). It has many advantages in the kitchen and is an essential ingredient to be used wisely and appropriately. As with everything from a dietary standpoint, balance is key. There is a time and place for everything—including fat.