Great ingredients make for great meals. Whenever you can, use the highest quality supplies for your recipes. The flavor difference will always come through in your finished dish.
If there is an ingredient that you are not familiar with, check our Ingredient section. There are pages and pages of information about the ingredients used in my recipes.
The most important fact to remember is that all oils and fats contain calories. For the most part a measured teaspoon of any fat will have about 45 calories.
From a health standpoint, fats that are less saturated are better for you. Saturation refers to the amount of hydrogen atoms that are on a fat molecule. More hydrogen atoms make a fat "stickier" and saturated fats are those that are more solid at room temperature (such as butter or lard). As a rule of thumb animal fats, like butter and lard, are more saturated than fats that come from vegetables.
There are some vegetable oils that are naturally more saturated - like coconut oil - and some oils are artificially saturated by adding hydrogen. The process is known as hydrogenation and is how margarines and vegetable shortening are made.
The healthiest type of fats are the mono-unsaturated fats and these have been clearly linked with lower rates of heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Good examples of mono-unsaturated oils are vegetable oils like olive oil, rapeseed oil and grapeseed oil.
Nuts and seeds are mostly fat and should be thought of as a fat even though they do have proteins in them. Like vegetable oils, nuts have good fats in them that have been linked to lower rates of heart disease. Even so, they have a lot of calories.
There are some ingredients like avocados, eggs and dairy products that most of us don't think of as having fats. Like seeds and nuts, avocados have the good types of fat but do have a lot of calories.
One of the most important fats that many of us use is mayonnaise. There are a number of fantastic non-fat and reduced-fat products. In my recipes I specify which should be used. This is based simply on which tastes best. Most salad dressings, for instance, will work fine with the non-fat mayo. Try this first and if it is not to your liking the reduced-fat version will almost always work great.
First and foremost, choosing a fat should be based on how you are going to use it. I try to use a variety of fats carefully and where I feel they will do the most to enhance the flavor of my recipes.
For example, I use butter in sparing amounts where the flavor will shine through. Rather than use a tablespoon of butter to saute with I might use a couple of teaspoons of a mono-unsaturated oil that doesn't have as much flavor (like grapeseed oil) combined with a teaspoon of butter. The rich flavor of the butter will come through, but there's much less saturated fat.
The three oils that I use the most are olive oil, grapeseed oil and rapeseed oil. These are all good mono-unsaturated oils. The olive oil is the most flavorful and the rich fruity flavor of olive oils is the topic of complete books. I generally keep a stronger Tuscan extra virgin oil for making a salad dressing like Caesar Salad where the flavor of the oil is a key flavor in the recipe.
When I use olive oil for cooking I generally use a lighter, less expensive oil.
Grapeseed oil has some of the flavor character of olive oil but is actually better for you. There is research that shows using grapeseed oil in place of olive or other oil reduces the bad cholesterol and raises the good cholesterol (this is the result that we doctors like to see).
Grapeseed oil is a great choice because it has a very high "smoke point." This is the temperature at which an oil will begin to smoke and for most oils it is under 400°F. For grapeseed oil this is in the 425° range (even higher if the oil is more pure).
I use rapeseed oil when I want an oil that has no flavor. Sometimes I will saute with this oil but more and more I use this oil in baking to reduce the amount of other fats (kind of like the example above of using butter and rapeseed oil). A good example is the Blueberry muffins recipe.
Milk, cream, creme freche, cream cheese and sour cream have variable amounts of fat. The fats in dairy products are more saturated. I look for lower fat dairy products like semi-skimmed milk or low-fat sour cream.
Cheese is also mostly fat and there's a lot of emphasis on using reduced-fat cheese in many healthy recipes. There are a lot of places where I use them but I do prefer regular fat cheeses. The key is to choose the highest quality cheese - the more flavor bang for your fat buck. Grate cheeses as you need them for the freshest flavor.
Look for a high quality Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of ordinary parmesan. Both have about 9 or 10 grams of fat per ounce but the imported has so much more flavor that you will need less for maximum taste.
Some rich creamy cheeses are already lower in fat. Good quality goat cheese will have only about 6 grams of fat per ounce and I look for some with less flavor that I can enhance cream sauces with like the Fettucine Alfredo recipe.