On Nutrition by Ed Blonz

Best Fats for Baking? Depends on the Recipe

DEAR DR. BLONZ: What fats do you recommend for baking? Years ago I used shortening, but then shifted to butter because of the trans fat issue. But butter has saturated fats, which are also a problem. -- F.S., Tucson, Arizona

DEAR F.S.: The fats used in baking serve a number of functions. They coat the flour and help to shorten the strings of gluten protein that form when water and flour mix; interestingly, this is the basis for the word “shortening.” The fats also help hold things together, and fats that are more solid help trap the air bubbles that allow baked goods to rise. (This is not much of an issue with cookies, which helps explain why less-solid fats can work there.)

This all means that you need specific performance characteristics from baking fats and oils, but at the same time, you don’t want your food to be a health liability. It makes sense to experiment a bit to see what works with your recipes. Also: Be aware that there are now shortenings without trans fats.

Additional guidance is available at the many websites and blogs covering baking, including bakefromscratch.com, bakerpedia.com, and bakerbettie.com.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: Is salmon safe to eat if it’s been frozen for over a year? Should I just throw it away? -- Y., Hayward, California

DEAR Y.: There shouldn’t be any problems from a safety perspective if the salmon was packaged tightly, ideally in a container or bag meant for this type of storage, and if your freezer has maintained its low temperature. I suggest removing any areas of freezer burn, which show as blotches of discolored fish, usually near the edges.

As the fish defrosts, let your senses be your guide as you check for “off” odors: After the siesta, your fish will not be as flavorful as it was fresh.

DEAR DR. BLONZ: What determines what is classified as dietary fiber in foods? -- D.D., Tulsa, Oklahoma

DEAR D.D.: There are two main categories of dietary fiber: water-insoluble and water-soluble, and their health benefits differ. Both, however, are valuable parts of the diet.

Fiber refers to the materials found in plant foods that the human body cannot digest. Think of the foods we eat as a complex combination of nutrients and non-nutrient ingredients. To absorb and make use of what’s there, the food has to be disassembled into small, absorbable bits, and our digestive system is that disassembly and absorption line.

Enzymes are the body’s chemicals that break foods down. Fiber is unique in that the human body lacks the enzymes that can take it apart. Instead of being absorbed, it remains in the part that passes on through. As fiber travels through the digestive system, what it does depends on how it’s built.

The average diet in the U.S. contains only about half the fiber we need. Research evidence suggests an increased fiber intake (a total of 25 to 30 grams per day) helps control heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, diverticular disease, constipation, diarrhea, weight, hemorrhoids and ulcerative colitis. Quite impressive, when you consider that dietary fiber isn’t absorbed. Recent findings suggest that the interaction between fiber and the flora in our intestines -- our microbiome -- will hold the key here, and this is now an emerging and exciting field of study.

Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to questions@blonz.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.