Sugar, fat and salt are arguably the three most discussed parts of cooking but also probably the three least understood. People often treat sugar, fat and salt as if they are edible evils that must be avoided at all costs but if you learn how to use them then they can be great and not so evil.
These three amigos need to be used but in proper moderation. The way large food corporations have turned to these three to create food addicts of us all is wrong but there is a way to reverse it. I could spend this post telling you all about how big food corporations have calculated how to influence you through the use of these three things but there are already others who’ve done that research for me.
Instead, let me make a case for how to use each one of these beautiful ingredients in a healthy way.
I’m going to get this out of the way, we need to be active. I know we all know this but it never hurts to have a reminder. Of course eating sugar, fat and salt will not be good for us if we aren’t active. But through an active lifestyle we can eat the stuff and not worry too much about our waistline or blood pressure.
Also, the best part is that when you’re active endorphins are released and your senses come alive, making food taste better. What do we lose in that scenario? Nothing.
I don’t need to convince you of the deliciousness of sugar, we all know about it. Sugar is also incredibly useful as it is the main source of energy that our brains use. That said, we need to pay attention to what we are using. The white refined crystals are not entirely good. They are void of the complex flavour that is inherent in sugar. This begs the question: is it also less beneficial to our brains? Try some cane sugar and compare it to the refined stuff and you will find that it is a more complex sweet. Cane sugar tastes almost like fruit juice with more body to it instead of just a straight up hit of refined sweetness.
Once you have the real stuff, use it wisely. This is often where it can be used in an unhealthy way. A little bit of sugar can enhance the flavour of sweet potato or bread but if you use too much it will overpower everything and you’ll miss out on the food’s subtleties that sugar can bring out. Reduce the sugar you use with sweet potato by adding more nutmeg and cinnamon, they’ll compliment the sugar by bringing out a hearty and fuller flavour.
Fat is probably the most poorly understood one of the three. Why avoid fat? It is flavour, you know. I cry inside (probably along with the countries of India and Pakistan) whenever I hear someone ordering a skinny no-fat chai latte at a coffee shop. Apart from the double helping of redundancy (skinny and no-fat? Really? Chai latte? Chai needs milk! Especially whole milk!) but I digress. It isn’t the same thing without the fat!
Use butter when you should use butter. Julia Child was a huge proponent of using butter in cooking, perhaps because the French have mastered it. I recently gave up using margarine in baking cookies and crisps and I can taste the difference. Butter offers a natural flavour that is really pleasurable while margarine can only hope to delude your taste buds.
Use olive oil when you should use olive oil. Last summer I had the pleasure of waking people up to the truth of olive oil. It is one of the most fraudulent businesses out there so much that many of us don’t even know what the actual stuff tastes like. If you are buying olive oil in a bottle in a grocery store chances are it is fake. This has given rise to far too many misconceptions and misuses. Here are a few truths that may surprise you:
1. You can cook with olive oil – You can even deep fry with certain olive oils
2. Olive oil is a healthy fat – it can even reduce the chances of heart problems and even cancer
3. Olive oil easily substitutes for butter (when you can’t have butter, use olive oil instead of margarine)
4. Olive oil is a fruit juice and needs to be fresh – if you are buying a product of Italy or Greece in September then it is probably gone off. At that time of year buy Australian stuff (or Chilean).
Salt is a weird one; it’s similar to sugar in use but completely different in flavour. We’ve been normalised to eating the super refined stuff but if you have the artisanal and unrefined stuff you will taste a whole new world. It is complex and adds so much to any dish’s flavour.
Use less of it. Like sugar, salt is often used to cover up something that tastes bland or unpleasant. However, if you use too much it will ruin the flavour. There’s an easy work-around for this: learn how to season with other spices and herbs. Other than the abundant use of olive oil Italian and Greek food tastes heavenly because of all the different herbs used. With all of these different flavours you don’t need as much salt.
The big thing to learn is to know what you are using and use it wisely. As far as olive oil, sugar and salt are concerned, if the packaging says “pure” you aren’t buying the healthier option. In fact, pure olive oil is more often than not inedible lampante (Italian for “lamp oil”). Use the real stuff, not the refined or fraudulent stuff… or margarine. Also, don’t use too much. If you are cooking and it needs more flavour try reaching for a herb or spice that isn’t sugar or salt.
As you play with seasonings and the levels of sugar, fat and salt in your cooking you may find a passion for making it taste right in your own unique way.