Get to know your fats and oils
In much of the cooking and baking we do here, oils and fats seem to play a constant role. They serve as a medium to help properly cook items to the perfect texture and even moisture. It’s why your eggs won’t stick to the frying pan when you make an omelette, or why your chicken breasts come out moist with a crispy exterior when grilled.
Regardless of your views on healthy eating, fats and oils are a necessity in our work. They also have been a misunderstood ingredient due to the push to eat better. The real trick to handling fats and oils is to stay pure, don’t use more than you need, and try not to burn this medium when in use.
Today we’ll go through a handful of popular choices, and where you might benefit the most from said choices. You should try to keep 2-4 choices in your kitchen, as different fats and oils are suitable for different tasks and especially flavors.
I’ll mention the term smoke point a lot, which is defined as the temperature that a fat or oil starts to burn, often signaled by smoke. It’s important to not burn oil unless you like your food tasting strange and made unhealthy with carcinogens.
Olive Oil: Probably one of the most popular cooking oils out there, but also a mysterious one for many when you see that large selection of expensive choices in small bottles to large cans at modest prices.
Extra-Virgin is the higher end of olive oil, as it has the best flavor and is the least refined. Extra-virgin usually means the first squeeze of the olives, and the oil that results. It has a medium smoke point, so it’s ideal for cooking and baking items in the oven, and for some stovetop work.
After the first squeeze of the olives, subsequent squeezes are usually termed as “virgin”, or sometimes it won’t carry a designation. There is nothing wrong with buying a virgin or “normal” olive oil for regular use. Most of the time this oil will have a higher smoke point than the extra virgin.
You should be mindful of the oil you pick up. Good pure olive oil isn’t chemically processed, nor mixed with other oils. You’ll notice in the slightly darker color of the oil if it’s worth getting. I’d suggest picking up a smaller bottle of that expensive extra-virgin olive oil to use when making salad dressings and other avenues when you need that pure flavor. Use the affordable pure olive oil for your cooking.
Canola and Vegetable Oils: I put these together because they are quite similar in terms of texture, color, and smoke point. I will say though that canola is a better choice in terms of health benefits, as vegetable oil is usually a mixture of canola oil with other oils such as peanut, soy, palm, and/or sunflower.
I’d only keep a bottle of canola for those occasions when you need to use oil, but do not want to taste the typical flavor olive oil leaves. Chinese, Thai, and Japanese cuisine are places I usually veer away from using olive oil and instead use canola. It has a medium-high smoke point so it’ll do well for stir-frys and sauteing.
Sunflower Oil: Many might choose peanut oil when you need to seriously fry items like schnitzel, chicken, or batter-dipped fish. I would more prefer the high smoke point of sunflower oil. The higher heat would mean less time the food is in the oil, so it can’t soak up that oil and ruin your desired crispiness. It doesn’t have much of a flavor, so you won’t taste it in your food.
Peanut Oil: This is one of the most popular oils for deep frying. You’ll see it used in a lot of Chinese cooking as well as when you see people deep-fry turkeys for Thanksgiving. I’ve used it in making peanut butter, but I’m honestly not a fan of peanut oil for cooking due to its questionable levels of fat. I would not use it regularly.
Palm Oil: Another choice I’m not a fan of due to its low health benefits. It has a high smoke point, so it’s great for frying. Many fast food restaurants use palm oil due to its low cost and high smoke point.
Corn Oil: Usually used in making margarine, it has a medium smoke point, thus it’s not ideal for any heavy heat frying. It is high in calories though.
Coconut Oil: Lately it’s become quite popular due to health and cosmetic trends such as oil pulling. Zuzana will stir a tablespoon of it into her morning oatmeal, as it adds a nice flavor. I’m not fully as convinced as many are though. The coconut flavor of this oil makes me skeptical to try it on anything beyond baked goods and possibly some island cuisine. Regardless, it has a high smoke point if you wanted to use it for frying.
Avocado Oil: With a high smoke point and a thicker, darker texture, I actually look at avocado oil as a worthy substitute for olive oil. It has a distinctive flavor, but it’s not so strong that it will affect the foods you cook. Definitely try it out as a secondary oil next to olive oil.
Sesame Oil: This is an oil I see more useful as a flavoring rather than a cooking medium. Practically every time I’ve used sesame oil has been as a last step in a handful of Chinese dishes, and the recipes called for it to be off the heat. It has a medium smoke point if you wanted to bake with it, but with its slightly higher price tag, I’d reserve a small bottle for flavoring purposes.
Now that we’ve gone through most of the pourable options, there’s a few very familiar solid choices worth using in many cases. Granted they will turn to liquid on heat, but they are different beasts from the liquids.
Butter: Chefs from Julia Child to Paula Deen have sworn by butter, and I can’t blame them. While too much can give the body many problems, there are just some cases when it’s still more ideal than any oil I listed above. It has a low smoke point, which makes it perfect for baking and light frying. The added flavor of butter can enhance many foods from sweet to savory. Don’t believe the fear mongering on butter, but always use in moderation.
Margarine: The best way to describe margarine is “artificial butter” or “solidified oil”. It’s non-dairy properties are ideal for the lactose intolerant. A low smoke point means it’s mainly good for baking and light frying. Unfortunately, margarine is very high in cholesterol, and thus should be used in moderation. Still, I’d tell you to pick butter first.
Lard: This unfortunate fat has been under fire for decades, but only due to its hydrogenated artificial sibling. The results are out though, pure lard can be better for you than butter. It has a high smoke point, but it can be used in anything from cooking beef to making a pie crust. If you plan on taking the plunge, be sure to go to a butcher and get pure pork or goose lard. Don’t even touch those pre-packaged versions on the grocery shelf.
I’ll do a deeper expose on lard this year, with a wonderful recipe for some Slovak biscuits made with lard and bacon.
Beyond the Selection
Beyond all the choices you see here today, you’ll probably find more, especially many oils more geared towards flavoring as opposed to a cooking medium. I would more lean on other oils, like truffle oil, to be used as flavorings more than for cooking. It really comes down to your sense of taste and what you view as “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
The only parting advice I can leave is to keep a variety in your kitchen. I usually have olive oil, butter, avocado oil (before I would have canola oil), and a bottle of sesame oil. Have choices in your cupboard so you can cook for any occasion you encounter.