There is really no reason to make brownies from a box, full of ingredients that are not only hard to pronounce but also not really food, and cups of processed oils. Processed oils, while cheap, are often hydrogenated, highly refined and full of trans fat. Let’s talk about fats and hydrogenated oils for a minute, because it can get confusing. (I’ll admit, this is as much of a refresher for me as it is for you.) Diets high in trans (and saturated – but this is controversial) fats are linked to chronic diseases, such as heart disease, and saturated fats usually contain lots of cholesterols and often contribute to raising the level of your bad cholesterol. Most saturated fats come from animal and plant sources. So, they’re naturally occurring. All of this is what the American Heart Association and the FDA guidelines will tell you. And it’s true, to an extent. “Everything in moderation, right?”
However, this is not to say that we should be replacing our butter with margarine and eliminate eggs and red meat from our diet. Fats from animal and plant sources provide lots of concentrated energy for our diet and are naturally occurring (as opposed to, say, highly refined vegetable shortening like Crisco). They also provide the building blocks for cell membranes and hormones. Eating rich foods high in fats slows down our nutrient absorption and keeps us feeling fuller, longer. Fats are essential for many bodily processes. So, the theory that there is a direct relationship between the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and the incidence of coronary heart disease isn’t necessarily a myth, but it is flawed. Low-fat diets are effective in weight loss but are hard to stick to (causing low energy, difficulty in concentration, and even weight gain!) I’m going to get kind of political on you here (yes, this is supposed to be a post about brownies) so skip right along to the recipe if you like, or keep reading if I’ve piqued your interest…
We have been led to believe that the consumption of saturated fats is responsible for heart disease. However, before the 1920s coronary heart disease was very rare in America. But by the 1950s it was the leading cause of death among Americans. Yet in that time we have not seen an increase in the amount of animal fat in the American diet, which is what the above assumptions would lead us to believe. Instead, the amount of dietary *vegetable* oils has increased substantially, in the form of margarine, shortening and refined oils. In contrast, the Japanese have some of the highest lifespans on the planet and eat arguably more cholesterol than the average American in their eggs, pork, chicken, beef and organ meats. What’s the difference? They don’t eat a lot of vegetable oil, white flower, or processed foods. The French, who LOVE their butter, cheese, creams, liver and patés, still have a lower rate of coronary heart disease than many other Western countries.
Have I got you thinking a bit about your eating habits? I hope so. Still confused about what terms like “saturated,” “monounsaturated” and “hydrogenated” mean? Me too. Let’s do a quick debriefing, thanks to Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions – The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, which I cannot recommend more!
Saturated: A fatty acid is saturated when all available carbon bonds are occupied by a hydrogen atom. They are highly stable because all the linkages are filled, which means they do not normally go rancid, even when heated for cooking purposes. (Vegetable oil is less stable at high temperatures than, say, canola. Olive oil is also unstable at high temps and therefore not good for frying.) A hydrogenated fatty acid is straight in form and often is solid or semisolid at room temperature (think coconut oil! or lard!). They are found mostly in animal fats and tropical oils. Your body makes them from carbohydrates. They have gotten a bad rep, but are perhaps better for you than hydrogenated and too much polyunsaturated…
Monounsaturated: These have one double bond, two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other, and therefore lack two hydrogen atoms. So, two atoms less than saturated, which have all the bonds occupied by hydrogen atoms. Monounsaturated fats have a kink or bend at the point of this double bond so they tend to be liquid at room temperature as they do not pack together as easily as saturated fats. Like saturated fats, however, they are also quite stable and don’t go rancid easily. The monounsaturated fatty acid most commonly found in our food is oleic acid, the main component of olive oil, as well as from nuts (almonds, pecans, peanuts) and avocados. Your body makes monounsaturated fatty acids from saturated fatty acids and uses them in many ways.
Polyunsaturated: These have two more more pairs of double bonds and lack four or more hydrogen atoms. (Ya dig?) The two polyunsaturated fats found most frequently in our foods are omega-6 and omega-3. Your body cannot make these and therefore they are called “essential.” We must obtain them from the foods we eat. They remain liquid even when refrigerated due to the kinks and bends at these sites of double bondings, and therefore are highly reactive and go rancid easily. They should never be heated or used in cooking.
Today, most fats are polyunsaturated, primarily from vegetable oils derived from soy, corn, safflower and canola. We need some of it to have healthy bodily functions, but it’s possible that too much can lead to the health problems I mentioned above. It’s best to get them not from vegetable oils, however, but rather from the small amounts found in legumes, grains, nuts, green veggies, fish, olive oil and animal fats. Excessive consumption can cause a number of health consequences, mostly because they become oxidized or rancid when subjected to heat, oxygen and moisture, as in cooking or processing.
OK, very quickly, while we’re here, let’s talk about what hydrogenation mean. Hydrogenation is the process that turns polyunsaturated oils, which are normally liquid at room temperature (because of all those kinks and bends that don’t allow them to pack down easily) into fats that are solid at room temperature (like margarine and shortening). To produce them, manufacturers take the cheapest kinds of oils–soy, corn, canola, already rancid from the extraction process–and mix them with tiny metal particles (usually nickel oxide). The oil with its nickel catalyst is then subjected to hydrogen gas. Then they add soap-like emulsifiers and starch into the mixture to give it a better consistency (thus subjecting the oil again to high temperatures). This is to remove its unpleasant odor (!). Margarine’s original color, a nasty grey, is removed by bleach. (Yes, bleach). Dyes and strong flavors make it resemble butter. Then, it’s compressed and packaged in blocks and tubs and sold as a health food. (Insane, right?!) Partially hydrogenated margarines and shortenings are, to say the least, even worse for you than the highly refined vegetable oils from which they are made because of the chemical changes that occur during the hydrogenation process. Hydrogenation straightens these bends by moving a hydrogen atom around in the chemical chain. This makes trans fats, which are toxins in your body.
Although a lot of the foods I post here use butter and full-fat dairy, eggs, I hope you’ll consider eating whole foods rather than grabbing a box that only requires oil and an egg from now on.
OK, heck of a health lesson. I will quit lecturing you now and I appreciate you sticking with me this far. Now… onto brownies!!
The Simplest, Most Delicious, Homemade Brownies
3 oz. unsweetened chocolate, roughly chopped (I used the brand called Bakers)
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt or 1/4 teaspoon table salt
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat your oven to 350 and grab a 9×9 baking pan. Line it with greased parchment paper.
Chop up 3 oz. of unsweetened baking chocolate into coarse chunks.
Using a double boiler (make this up from whatever cookware you’ve got, just make sure the bowl you use is heatproof) melt chocolate and butter together over lightly simmering water until mostly combined but not completely. Finish mixing off the heat, stirring until completely melted and smooth. You can also do this in the microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring in between, but there is more room for error here. Whisk in sugar, then eggs, one at a time, then vanilla and salt. Stir in the flour with a spatula. Scrape into prepared pan, spread until even. (I threw some walnuts on top that I had laying around. A good decision, if you ask me.) Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.