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Just the mention of words like oils and fats makes some consumers queasy. The former can conjure the image of grease, while the latter may make them think of issues like obesity and high cholesterol.
These days, however, the use of good fats and oils by quick-service operators in their cooking and on their menu items tells an entirely different story—one that increasingly looks to not only provide great flavor, but also healthful eating.
“Just from a nutrition viewpoint, fats are something our bodies need,” says Nate Weir, chef and director of culinary operations at Denver-based fast casual Modmarket. “They’re an important part of the diet, but it’s important to know where they’re coming from.”
Fats are also key to cooking, from the frying oil that makes french fries crispy outside and soft inside to the salad oil that livens up greens and the butter that makes soft and chewy cookies.
But not all fats and oils—made from the fats of plants and animals—are the same. Experts say trans fats are considered unhealthy, saturated fats should be reduced, and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats help promote health.
“I think the key thing is that people need to realize that there are a lot of health benefits with healthy fats,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. Fats are essential for a wide range of functions, she says, such as building healthy cells, maintaining proper nerve activity, and ferrying vitamins through the body. “People hear the word fat and think, ‘That’s bad,’ but it is really, really important to distinguish between the good and bad fats. You need to try to get healthy fats in your diet.”
The discussion over good and bad fats is often in terms of cholesterol and its impact on heart health. Some fats raise cholesterol, or LDL, linked to an increased risk of coronary disease; other boost HDL, dubbed “good cholesterol,” which has the opposite effect. In addition, our bodies don’t produce some of the fats we need. High levels of these Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids can be found in fish, many seeds and oils made from seeds, leafy vegetables, and walnuts.
The easiest way to understand if a fat is saturated or unsaturated is how it appears normally, Kris-Etherton says. “Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature,” she says.
Oils are liquid but contain some saturated fat. Canola oil, for instance, is 7 percent saturated fat, but most of it is monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. Olive, peanut, and most other vegetable oils are similarly low in monounsaturated fat and high in polyunsaturated.
Trans fats—found in small amounts in some meat and dairy foods but found most often in processed partially hydrogenated oils—are solid, but low in saturated fats. However, trans fats actually act like saturated fat by raising LDL, while unlike saturated fats, they decrease HDL, making them a bigger concern.
Many limited-service restaurant operators have removed most artificial trans fats over the past decade, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced plans to restrict their use.
For chefs and operators, there’s often a balancing act between the healthfulness of a fat or oil with the taste, texture, and heating properties that are desired in the food.
“Most operators are pretty much aware of what’s going on from a health standpoint,” says Chef David Kamen, manager of consulting products for the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. “It’s one of the many factors they consider” in creating a menu.
Oils with a neutral flavor are often better for deep frying because they have a higher smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil or fat smokes as it degrades and oxidizes, potentially changing the chemical makeup of the food that is getting cooked.
“You can taste canola oil, and you don’t taste anything,” Kamen says. “But if you use extra virgin olive oil, which has a distinct flavor, it has a much lower burn level.”
Even though olive oil and less-refined vegetable oils may not be the best for frying at high heat, they are excellent for colder foods like salads, he says, because “now we want the oils with more flavors.”
One menu category where chefs have a difficult time removing saturated fats is desserts—cakes, pies, cookies, and so forth. “If you want a really flaky crust, you’ve got to have a fat, like butter, that is solid at room temperature,” Kamen says.
The balance of flavor and healthy ingredients is important to Jesse Gideon, chief operating officer and corporate chef at Atlanta-based Fresh to Order, but there’s no doubt as to where the scales tip. “When I look at oils and fats, my first concern, with my chef’s hat on, is to make sure everything tastes amazing,” he says.
Some oils and fats don’t work well in preparing specific foods, but healthier oils and fats are used whenever possible, he says. The brownies at Fresh to Order, for instance, are made with olive oil and “taste amazing. They have a really nice richness, a really nice mouthfeel, and we added some good fat,” he says.
Olive oil is used in a number of Fresh to Order menu items to provide richness and taste. The company steeps and strains its olive oil—one is infused with whole lemons, peppercorns, chilies, and garlic, and another with rosemary, peppercorns, and garlic—as a starter and finishing oil. There is also a smoky blackening mop sauce with olive oil that is mostly chilies, herbs, and a few trade secrets.
Still, the 15-unit fast-casual chain uses real butter for some items, such as drizzled honey butter on freshly baked croissants and butter and heavy cream with its mashed sweet potatoes. “There’s a richness and cheek-smiling ability butter produces,” Gideon says.
Oil is used in everything from emulsifying a dressing to roasting beets and grilling proteins at Modmarket, which has a dozen units in Colorado and Texas. Its basic oil is a blend of extra virgin olive oil and non-genetically modified organism (GMO) canola oil.