Grease is the Word

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A little bit of grease can go a long way toward creating a successful dish. Whether it’s cooking pancakes, French toast or grilled cheese on a griddle, searing a steak in a cast iron skillet, or sautéing vegetables in a Dutch oven, they will all cook better if the vessel is first greased with a little bit of fat.

I have lost count the number of times I have gone camping with young scouts who decide to make pancakes for breakfast but they fail to grease their griddle first. The result is stuck on, broken, burnt pancakes. This does not make for happy campers and it is a tragedy because it could have been easily prevented by smearing on just a little bit of fat first.

And, while I would like to say that any grease is better than no grease, in some cases, there is definitely a right grease for the job. But first, let’s talk smoke point.

Smoking Hot

Smoke point is the temperature at which an oil starts to break down. You’ll know it’s happening when the oil starts to, well, smoke. Each type of oil has a slightly different smoke point. Do your best to avoid the smoke point. While it’s not harmful to your health, cooking oil past its smoke point can cause nutrient loss and create unpleasant off-flavors that’ll affect the taste of the finished dish.

If the heat source is not properly managed and an oil continues to heat and breakdown, as it degrades, it’s also getting closer to its flash point, which can result in its catching fire, sometimes quite spectacularly. I prefer to avoid this since I’m pretty attached to my eyebrows and would like to keep them!

In most cases, and in most nationalities, olive oil and/or butter are the fats of choice. Vegetable oils also have their uses. Here’s my short list of go to fats.

Olive Oil

The health benefits of olive oil are unrivaled, and research reveals more benefits nearly every day. In fact, we are only just beginning to understand the countless ways olive oil can improve our health, and our lives. Olive oil is the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet—an essential nutritional mainstay for the world’s longest-living cultures.

In addition to the health benefits, olive oil is excellent for cooking because it has a higher smoke point (375°F -470°F, depending on type), which is great for inexperienced cooks and campers where managing the heat is a challenge. Olive oil also brings nice flavors to whatever you’re cooking and is essential to creating aromatics in Cajun, Italian, and Latin cuisines.

Aromatics are combinations of vegetables and herbs (and sometimes even meats) that are heated in some fat at the beginning of a dish. The heated fat helps these ingredients release addictive aromas and impart deep flavors into the dish that’s being cooked.

Butter

Paula Deen is famous for saying, “Everything’s better with butter.” For the most part, she is right. When heated, butter develops a beautiful nutty flavor as the milk solids (proteins and sugars) caramelize. When butter is used as a cooking medium, such as for searing a steak or sautéing vegetables, it complements and enhances the flavors of the food that is being cooked in it. It also adds complexity to the flavor of sauces.

When you cook eggs in olive oil, they’re good. But when cooked in butter, eggs taste like the only breakfast you want to eat for the rest of your life.

Butter is simply amazing for searing a steak and I couldn’t make a béchamel with anything but butter. I also wouldn’t make a grilled cheese sandwich without butter.

While its flavor is highly prized in cooking, there are drawbacks to cooking with butter. For one, it has a low smoke point. Butter starts to smoke at around 350°F.

Another way to cook with butter at higher temperatures is to use clarified butter. Clarified butter is the pure, golden butterfat from which the milk solids and water have been removed. Because it’s the milk solids that burn the fastest, pure butterfat can be heated much higher (around 450°F) before it starts to smoke.

Clarified butter is also preferred for making a roux, which is one of the most common ways of thickening a sauce. Clarified butter is better for this because the water in ordinary butter can cause an emulsified sauce like Hollandaise to separate.

Where olive oil leaves a pool behind in a bowl of pasta, butter beautifully coats each strand of fettuccine. Done right, where olive oil is good; butter is better.

Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oil is my go to choice for greasing my griddle before I pour on my pancake batter. Just a light coating on the griddle will help pancakes come up easier. Contrary to some opinions, even a non-stick griddle will benefit from a thin coating of vegetable oil.

Vegetable oils run the gamut, from coconut and sesame (350°F) to canola, corn, soybean, and peanut (450°F) with so many more in between. At the top of the food chain is safflower oil with a smoke point of 510°F! Technically, olive oil is a vegetable oil but it’s in a culinary class all its own and deserves to be singled out. All of these vegetable oils are very good for cooking and they impart their own flavors to whatever you’re cooking. The key factors to consider when choosing a vegetable oil are heating temperature (smoke point) and flavor. Here are a few unique factors to consider.

Canola oil has a neutral flavor, a 450°F smoke point, and is a good all-purpose oil.

Corn, safflower, and sunflower are all good for deep-frying and have light or neutral flavors.

Peanut oil has a mild flavor and high smoke point (450°F), which makes it great for deep-frying and a range of other cooking. It is popular in Asian cooking.

Sesame oil has a distinct flavor and is another popular Asian cooking oil. It is good for deep-frying, stir-frying, dipping sauces and dressings. Sesame oil is one of my favorites when I’m cooking Asian food.

Coconut oil is extremely popular right now. It has a distinct, sweet flavor and it’s natural sweetness makes it good for baking, sautéing, and in dressings.

So, there you have it. While not all oils are created equal, they are all good and should be a staple in your camp food box. I always pack a bottle of olive oil in my food tote and extra butter in my cooler since those are my preferred fats. The two together are an amazing combination as the olive oil brings stability and a higher smoke point while the butter brings that silky, nutty flavor and carmelization. If I’m making pancakes, I also pack a bottle of canola oil. If I’m cooking Asian I pack sesame oil.

Again, it’s all about the right grease for the job. So, no matter what you’re cooking, always start with a little bit of fat in the pan or on your griddle. Your pancakes and your campers will thank you!

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