Food Without Fats? You Might As Well Be Eating On Mute.
We take the key aspects of the taste experience of food — appearance, smell, texture, taste, function — to give fats the love they deserve.
But before we talk about fats, let’s talk about sharks. Yep! Sharks. Jaws, specifically. What’s the very first thing that comes to mind when you think of that movie? Is it the opening night-swim scene? Robert Shaw’s can’t-look-away performance of Quint’s USS Indianapolis speech? What’s your total, instinctual gut association? Most likely, it’s the music.
Did you know when composer John Williams pitched what Robert Ebert has referred to as the “two notes…[that would] scare millions of people out of the water, and out of their skins,” Spielberg thought it was a joke? That two-note theme — foreboding, edgy, insistent — is the thread with which the entire movie is stitched together. Imagine watching Jaws on mute. Not very powerful.
Which brings us to fats. The absence of them in food is eating on mute.
Much as the way a movie has showier components that can overshadow music (the actors, the sets, the script), food has showier components that can overshadow fats. Consider the perfect roast chicken: crispy skin like gold foil all over; halved citruses and rosemary wands spilling off; a scrim of glistening amber jus in the bottom of the pan, just begging to be spooned over mashed potatoes. You can smell that. You can taste that. It’s easy to romance all that deeply evocative sensory detail. But none of them — appearance, smell, texture, taste, function — would be possible without fats. And you know what? Fats need romance too.
Let’s take these aspects one by one. Appearance: We eat first with our eyes, right? It’s an old adage but one with physiological grounding. Food that looks good typically tastes good, and more importantly for our ancestors, was safe to eat. This primal neurological traffic light remains hardwired into our brains. Fats make food look their best, in both their uncooked and cooked states. Think of the bright white ski runs of marbling coursing through rib-eye in a butcher’s case. In this instance, fats are sliding into our mental DMs with a seductive message: “I am very good/safe/delicious to eat.”
When examining smell and taste, it’s key to understand how inextricably linked these senses are. The majority of what our taste buds interpret as flavor is actually smell. It’s why a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich loses a lot of its salty-sweet-savory swagger when you have a cold. It’s why airline chefs, compensating for the altitude that blunts our noses’ functionality, crank up the sugar and spice and everything sodium for inflight meals. And much like appearance, smell and taste operate on an evolutionary principle: bad ones = spoilage; good ones = delectability.
Fats create their own aromas and flavors, like the haunting toasted-butter essence of freshly baked croissants, but fats are also the vehicles to carry other flavors. Without fat, most herbs, spices, and other flavor molecules can’t do their job. Many of the aromatic compounds in our favorite flavors don’t dissolve in water, but when fats are present, those same compounds can hitch rides on them like stowaways on a million microscopic hot air balloons, traveling upward to our sensory receptors. This is why a chef might “bloom” coriander, cumin, and chile in oil before continuing on with their taco recipe. Or how cinnamon has a deeper, more voluptuous flavor baked into an apple pie as opposed to sprinkled over applesauce. Fats are to flavors what flippers are to swimmers: performance optimizers.
Think about a world without fats. Fortunately we don’t live in that world. Ours is fats-rich, because they turn a one-note eating experience into a two-note concerto as delicious and irresistible as the Jaws theme.
The next time you think you don’t need fats in your cooking and in your ingredients, just remember the famous Great White and his walk-on song. Turn up the fats. Turn off the mute button.