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May 2012/Prepared Foods -- All fats are not equal: Some types are much more desirable than others when creating nutrient-conscious menus. One might be able to improve recipes by choosing the right type of fat, but sometimes the solution is not so straightforward.

Fat is an essential nutrient, and it also performs many important culinary functions. It contributes to the flavor and texture of foods on its own, and it blends the flavors of other ingredients and foods. Nutrients and flavor compounds that are fat-soluble are hidden in foods prepared or served without fat. Fat helps create a crisp texture when used in fried and sautéed foods; it helps tenderize and create a flaky or crumbly texture in baked goods; and fat also helps to retain moisture. It contributes to feelings of satiety and can actually help people to eat fewer calories overall.

Reducing Fat

Reducing fat is one of the most intriguing challenges facing a chef. Although many people want to eat less fat, they are usually unwilling to sacrifice flavor or texture to do so.

The first step in creating low-fat recipes or reducing the fat content of existing recipes is to evaluate whether the recipe is a candidate for being made with less fat. Sometimes this is easy.  Flavored olive oil or a starch-thickened sauce can complement sautéed vegetables, and a fruit purée will add flavor to typically buttered favorites, such as waffles or pancakes. However, sometimes fat contributes to the finished product in a more complicated manner. The butter in a cake batter, for example, affects the leavening, color and texture of the finished product.

After the function of the fat is identified, it’s possible to devise a strategy for improving the fat content of a dish. That strategy can be as simple as using a leaner cut of meat or poultry, or replacing a high-fat meat with a meaty fish steak. Or, meat in a soup or stew can be replaced all or in part with legumes or vegetables. A strategy for reducing fat in roasted poultry is to leave the skin on to help retain moisture, tucking herbs or other aromatics under the skin to introduce another flavor element. Then, remove the skin before serving.

Choose saturated fats wisely. Bacon provides a unique flavor and can be used as a condiment in some dishes, but render it first and pour off most of the fat before proceeding with the recipe—to minimize the amount of saturated fat—while taking advantage of its flavor.

Another option is to remove unnecessary fat throughout the cooking process. Fat drips off grilled and broiled meats and is not used in pan sauces, so changing to this method of preparation reduces calories from fat. Soups, stews and braises can be refrigerated overnight. The fat will rise to the top and solidify, making it easy to remove.

Many low-fat and fat-free ingredients can be used to replace fat. High-quality, reduced-fat dairy products are readily available. Some nonfat dairy products may not be suitable for cooking and baking, because they tend to break down when subjected to high heat. Others, however, can be used with great success. The cream cheese in a cheesecake, for example, can be replaced with a combination of reduced-fat cream cheese, nonfat yogurt (drained of its whey), and puréed low-fat cottage and ricotta cheeses. Evaporated skim milk can be used in place of cream in many sauce formulations. In recipes that call for eggs, several of the egg yolks can often be omitted without compromising the end-product.

Reduced-fat dairy foods are susceptible to curdling, because they often lack sufficient fat to inhibit protein coagulation. To avoid this, add the reduced-fat product at the last possible minute and use gentle heat. Or, try mixing a small amount of starch, such as cornstarch or flour, into the dairy product. The starch will swell and block the proteins from coagulating in much the same way that fat would.

The fat in a cream soup can be reduced in a variety of ways. Rather than use a roux to thicken the broth, purée vegetables or starchy ingredients such as potatoes, rice or legumes. These can also be used in many classic sauces. Gravy, traditionally thickened with a roux, can be made with jus lié. Roasted, braised, fresh or dried fruits and vegetables can be used in coulis, relishes and chutneys to give a dish a completely unique flavor profile.

In the Bakery

Replacing fat in baked goods presents greater challenges because of the complex physical and chemical changes that take place during the baking process. Using cooking spray, a silicone baking mat or parchment paper to line a pan (rather than butter, oil or shortening) reduces the fat partially. When replacing the fat in batters and doughs, however, it is critical to consider the function of fat. Fruit purées, such as applesauce, mashed bananas, lekvar (prune purée) or other fruits with high pectin and sugar levels, can be used to replace up to 75% of the fat in some recipes. Meringues can be used to provide volume in cake and soufflé batters; when a cooked meringue is folded with a small amount of whipped, heavy cream, the result is a good substitute for full-fat whipped cream. Buttermilk is naturally low in fat; it can be used in lieu of milk or cream in many baking recipes. It adds a pleasant tang to the finished recipe, and its high acidity helps to leaven and create a tenderer product.

Equipping the Low-fat Kitchen

Although special equipment is not required for low-fat cooking, having some tools on hand can make it much simpler.

Nonstick pans have become much more durable in recent years and are appropriate for professional kitchens. Well-seasoned cast iron is also useful. Both types of cookware prevent foods from sticking and encourage browning. As long as these pans are cleaned and stored properly, they will provide years of use.

Defatting pitchers can be used to remove fat from small amounts of liquid. These have spouts at the bottom that allow the liquid to be poured out when the fat has risen to the top. Defatting ladles can be used to remove fat from large amounts of liquid and are easier to use than standard ladles. Defatting ladles have a raised rim above small slots. The fat flows through the slots and is collected in the bowl of the ladle. Silicone bake mats are handy for baking. They are nonstick and heat-resistant, and can be used to line sheet pans. Parchment serves a similar function, though it is not always as effective.

Cooking with Less Salt

Salt does more than add saltiness to foods. It intensifies the other flavors in a dish, which is why a small amount is often added to desserts and baked goods. [Editor’s note: The movement to lower sodium has become controversial, as reviews of the science reveal there is no definitive clinical benefit to do so in the diets of healthy people. Still, consumer demand for lower salt remains high.]

Improperly seasoned foods taste bland and unappealing, but underseasoning foods can also have a negative impact. Cooked foods often require more salt to achieve the same amount of flavor than if they had been salted throughout the cooking process. In addition, the majority of the sodium people consume is in processed foods, such as canned goods and snack items, not from salt added before, during or after cooking.

It’s possible to create flavorful dishes without adding a lot of salt or using high-sodium ingredients. Aromatic ingredients, such as onions, garlic, shallots, fresh ginger and scallions, are fundamental. They often go into the pot first, so their flavors and aromas can infuse everything else in the dish. Look to cuisines from other countries for characteristic flavor profiles that may complement the recipe. Greek cuisine, for example, often uses olive oil, lemon, cinnamon, tomato and oregano; Asian dishes typically include ginger, garlic or scallions. Latin American cooking often uses chili peppers, lime and cilantro to build flavor.

Herbs and spices are essential to healthy cooking. Fresh herbs, in particular, can lift the flavor of any food. Choose those that have intense or unique flavors, such as rosemary and saffron, for the most impact; add them sparingly, so they do not overwhelm the other flavors. Chili peppers add a pleasant heat and a piquant zest to foods.

Pungent ingredients can add bold flavors: Mustard seeds and dry mustard, horseradish, tamarind pods and wasabi provide a noticeable kick. Soy and fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce and paste can add a depth of flavor beyond mere saltiness. However, processed versions of these products can have added sodium.

The bright, sharp flavors of acidic foods can often reduce the need for salt. Citrus and flavored vinegars can give recipes a refreshing taste without affecting their sodium content. By combining and contrasting spices, herbs and other distinctive flavoring agents, it’s possible to moderate sodium levels—while enhancing the flavors of the main ingredients.

Cooking with Less Sugar

Humans are born with a preference for sweet foods, which can make it difficult to limit the use of refined sugars and to resist desserts. Providing the option to choose foods that taste delicious but do not contain excessive amounts of sugar is a hallmark of healthy cooking.

An easy method to lowering refined sugar in a formulation is to capitalize on the natural sugars present in many foods. Fruits are a source of sugar, but they also are packed with nutrients. Combining several fruits or combining the same fruit in different forms (fresh, dried, cooked or puréed) expands the flavor profile of that dessert.

Caramelizing foods enhances their natural sugars. Cooking foods using a dry-heat method browns them—creating a deep, rich, complex flavor.

Sweeteners other than sugar add flavors beyond just sweetness. Consider how different gingerbread would taste if it were sweetened with maple syrup rather than molasses. Honey often has a flavor that hints of the flower from which it originates. As with molasses, honey can be used in sweet or savory recipes. pf