As far as I am concerned, fat is essential, both in cooking and in baking. Even an extremely fit person has maybe 5% body fat, so I am comfortable with this statement:-) Fat does amazing things in foods: it is a medium for heat transfer, as in deep-frying, but it also carries flavors, add depth and richness to a dish and assists in the rise of baked goods (see: creaming method)
What type of fat you use can significantly effect the flavor and final texture of your baked good. Here is an abbreviated fat primer for your enjoyment:
Butter: I will say it–I love butter. Butter is a natural product and contains fewer trans-fats than margarine. But, I’ll get down off of that soapbox before I get good and riled up. Butter is a solid at room temperature. By USDA standard, butter contains at least 80% butterfat. The remaining 20% or so is composed of milk solids and water. It has a relatively low melting point, and once it starts to melt, it melts quickly.
Lard: Not used so much in cooking these days, our grandmothers used lard for everything from frying chicken to making pie crusts. It has a crystalline fat structure that makes it perfect for making a the flakiest pie crust ever. Lard is 100% fat and should have a clean, fairly neutral flavor.
Shortening: Shortening is a man-make hydrogenated fat that is 100% fat. It is a solid at room temperature, and it melts fairly slowly at temperatures somewhat higher than butter.
Cooking Oil: Is comprised of 100% fat and is liquid at room temperature. Depending on the oil, it may or may not solidify or thicken under refrigeration and it may or may not contain saturated fat.
And now we conclude this portion of Know Your Fat! Stay tuned for Part 2, in which we discuss the pros and cons of using each kind of fat in the pastry kitchen. Please weigh in (thank you–I’ll be here all week)! What’s your favorite fat? Or do you try and stay away from all of it? I’d love to hear what you have to say.