Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Dig In: Butter - are you anxious?

Butter, used wisely, is good food and I hope you have not banished it from your life.   Butter is a gift from God and cows and Mother Nature and we should be grateful for it and enjoy it.

But before I talk more about the merits of butter and how to make shortbread,  I really need to mention the elephant in the room -  fat anxiety.   I just think it is terrible the way that food manufacturers keep trying to confuse everybody and pander to people's desire to "eat healthy" just so they can keep selling lots of fake butter and cheap and poor tasting cookies, chips and crackers.

Because I believe a well informed consumer is a less anxious consumer, let's have a short course: Fatty Acids 101.  I will try to make this as simple as I can.  And then we can get to the fun part -  a shortbread recipe.

1.  All traditional fats are good and healthy in moderation.  Nina Planck, in her book,  Real Food   What to Eat and Why, speaks of "traditional fats" and defines them as bacon, lard, butter, olive oil, and beef suet - "foods we've eaten for thousands of years in their natural form."   She says that the "bad fats" are the industrial fats recently added to our diet, such as refined vegetable oils and synthetic trans fats formed by hydrogenation of oils.

I use all the "traditional fats" (well, not much beef suet) as well as some nut oils and canola oil and sunflower oil.  I especially love lard for baking,  now that I have access to pork fat from pastured animals.   I am beginning to rethink my use of industrial refined oils.  However, since I consume so little commercially made foods I am probably not in a danger zone.  My fantasy is to someday have access to hazelnut oil processed in Southeast Minnesota.  Maybe in my lifetime.

2.  All fats - even good "traditional fats" or unsaturated fats - are high in calories.  Most weigh in at about 100-110 calories per tablespoon.  That is one reason to consume them in moderation.  Both the U.S. Government and the American Heart Association recommend that no more than 30% of your daily calories come from fat - no matter what kind.

3.  All fats are a combination of three basic fatty acids: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.  Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and is fully hydrogenated.  There are no trans fats in saturated fats.   Mono and poly unsaturated fats are oils which are incompletely hydrogenated to varying degrees.  Hydrogenating unsaturated fats creates trans fats.

Fats are identified by the predominant fatty acid.  More than 50% of the fatty acids in butter are saturated.  Lard is about 50% monounsaturated, 40% saturated, 10%  polyunsaturated.  Olive oil is 70% monounsaturated (oleic acid) and 14% saturated (palmitic acid).

4.  Trans fats should be avoided.  They raise the risk of heart disease and lower "good" cholesterol. (Since 2000, the American Heart Association has recommended limited consumption of any products containing trans fats.)  For a very good discussion of trans fats, which Mayo Clinic calls "double trouble,  click on this link.  Since 2006, food labels must disclose information about trans fats.  So if you must consume industrially made snacks or baked goods, at least become a savvy label reader.

5.  Margarine is not necessarily healthier to eat than butter.  It is made from soybean oil, which must be hydrogenated to make it hard and "butter like".  Food companies like partially hydrogenated soy oil as an ingredient because of its more solid consistency, low production costs and shelf stability.

Marion Nestle, respected nutritionist, university professor and author, sums up the situation this way:  "No matter what their labels say, all margarines are basically the same--mixtures of soybean oil and food additives.  Everything else is theater and greasepaint." (What to Eat: Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating  2006)  She states her preference for butter: "A good butter is a wonderful treat, and a little goes a long way.  I buy the best butter I can find, store it well wrapped in the freezer, and use it sparingly."

Some types of soft margarine do have less saturated fat than butter and are arguably "healthier" due to that fact.  One would have to know more about the trans fat content of any given product to reach a valid conclusion about its relative health benefits compared to butter or other "traditional" saturated fat.

6.  The real thing is always best.  One of my favorite food writers,  Laurie Colwin, wrote about butter in More Home Cooking:  
"Father Robert Farrar Capon, in his noble book The Supper of the Lamb, suggests that, if you are going to refrain from butter, you ought not con yourself into accepting some nasty imitation.  He feels people ought to use good-quality olive oil and, once in a while, allow a measure of real, true pure butter.  This is extremely sensible advice."
Hear hear.

7.  It is possible to have a good life without butter.  (Maybe a good life, but not a great life?)
The Mediterranean cuisine and most Asian cuisines use virtually no butter.  If you are trying to limit saturated fats,  get more comfortable with the seasonings and ingredients from these food traditions.  Then once in a while you can have an over the top butter experience with no qualms.

You also can have good peanut butter, honey or jams around the house when you want to doll up some bread.  Olive oil also is excellent with bread.  (If you buy or better yet bake very good bread you will not feel so much need for butter or other butterlike spread.)

Try naked vegetables.
"It is always instructive to do without.  A naked baked russet or sweet potato will show you how wonderful these things are by themselves. An unadorned vegetable-a truly fresh vegetable, nicely steamed-is simply full of itself."  Laurie Colwin

(For more facts about butter, check out this website from the Canadian dairy people.

Butter tastes good. Butter makes other food taste good - it carries and disperses flavor.

Butter is a good source for vitamins A and D.

Vegetables are more nutritious served with butter.  Fat is needed for the carotenoids to reach the absorptive intestinal walls.

Butter helps food retain moisture and increases all important "mouth feel".

Butter is unparalleled for baking - especially cookies, cakes and pies.   There is a reason that most butter is sold in the months of October, November and December.

One of the best ways to enjoy the flavor of butter in a cookie is in classic shortbread.  This recipe is from Laurie Colwin, who said "I would turn my back on a chocolate truffle or a banana split for one piece of crisp, melting shortbread,  It is the essence of butter. . . .  The pure plain thing is a wonder in itself.  If you have been a good person for a long time you will want something simple and elegant that cannot be made without butter.  There is only one thing that will do: shortbread."

This is a simple and easy recipe.  Once you get the hang of it you will never buy commercial shortbread again.  (Although I do like Walker's - I wonder what kind of butter they use?)  Make two batches and give one to a friend.

3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup rice flour (If you don't have this you can use 1/4 cup all purpose flour)
1/4 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt
1 stick butter (same as 1/2 cup, 8 tablespoons or 1/4 pound)
1/4 cup confectioner's sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
A few drops almond extract (optional - but I like the flavor)
Cream the sugar and butter and add vanilla and extract, if you are using it.  If you have a stand mixer with a paddle attachment use it and you can make these cookies in a flash.   If not, a wooden spoon and heavy bowl will work just fine.
Combine dry ingredients and stir into the butter mixture.  Dough will be a bit soft and crumbly.  Use your hands to gather dough into a ball.  Work quickly so dough does not warm  up too much.  Pat into an 8 inch circle on an ungreased baking sheet.  Score into 8 or 12 wedges with a sharp knife or pizza wheel.  Using a fork,  prick holes into each wedge a few times.  Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until shortbread is brown around the edges.  Cut into wedges while cookies are still warm.  Let cookies cool on baking sheet.  Store in a covered container for up to a week.  Freezes well.

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