Oils and fats are a hot topic these days, and a confusing one at that! How do you know which oil is better, and how should you be using it? Well I am going to tell you my favorite picks.
First, a little science behind it to enlighten us for future purchases. Fat chains are fat molecules connected together. Some fat chains are long and thin, and as a result, delicate. Others are short and bunched together solidly. Those guys? Hardy. Some are in the middle. The chains are important distinctions, because they predict how these molecules will act under certain circumstances. The first group includes vegetable oils, such as canola oil, and contain low amounts of saturated fats, medium levels of monounsaturated fats, and higher numbers of polyunsaturated fats. The second group includes fats from animal proteins, such as lard, and contain more saturated fats and monounsaturated fats, but less polyunsaturated fats. The middle group includes avocado oils, olive oils, and is more composed of monounsaturated oils overall.
So why is this important? Under heat and cooking, these fat molecules begin to change, and sometimes, weaken. If they break down completely, they release toxins in to our bodies, which we affectionately call free radicals. These radicals wreak havoc in our bodies. It’s like when our dog gets out the front door and makes a run through the neighborhood! Yeah, that’s these guys. If we don’t rein them in they cause damage, getting in to things they shouldn’t, maybe dragging out our trash, or causing trouble in other yards and neighborhoods! We have to get these radicals back inside, or better yet, prevent them from getting out in the first place.
Those long, thin delicate molecule chains are the first to break loose. Canola oil and safflower or sunflower oils are low in saturated fats, yes, which everyone loves to focus on. But the truth is, these guys need those saturated fats to withstand chemical changes from heat and pressure. Those villainous saturated fats (can you read my sarcasm here?) we love to hate actually work hard to keep their chains in tight form. They are strong! They are sturdy! They are good under heat and pressure. These fats with a higher saturated fat content actually are better oils to use because they are less likely to go haywire in our bodies.
So when it comes to my choice of oils and how I use them, my top pick right now is avocado oil. Man, is this oil fantastic! It’s clean, low pesticide residue, and unlikely to be GMO. It’s high heat stable, up to 500 degrees, so I use this one for wok cooking and roasting. I cook my eggs in it every morning too! How does it taste? Like nothing. No real flavor, completely mild oil so it’s perfect for many things. You get all the protective benefits of avocados here too. Bonus points- it works beautifully in baking recipes as a substitute for other fats and oils.
Next up would be coconut oil. Now this one is not as high heat stable as avocado oil, so I reserve it for 350-385 degrees or less. Reports can be confusing, some saying it can be used at higher temps, but I err on the side of caution. It has that characteristic coconut flavor, so as you can imagine, it’s not appropriate in every recipe. I do use it often in baking, or for roasting potatoes. It adds a lovely sweetness to your foods.
Lard is another fat I like to use. I will recommend this one with caveats, however. I do not advocate lard purchased from the store. Most of these lards are rendered from animals raised in conventional farming standards. Their diets are not natural and not aimed at proper nutritional needs, therefore these animals are not the healthiest they should be. We are what we eat, after all. So lard rendered from unhealthy animals will thus be unhealthy as well. You may remember that I prefer to purchase my pork direct from a farmer using traditional farming practices. I purchase the fat from these animals and render my own lard as well. It’s actually a very easy and economical practice. Plus it makes this beautiful jar of pristine white lard. So how do I use lard? It’s high heat stable to 465 degrees. I like this one for cooking, sautéing, roasting, and baking.
Where’s olive oil, you say? Don’t worry, I love olive oil too. But! I don’t cook with it. Olive oil is only high heat stable to 325 or so, especially the extra virgin olive oils. They have wonderful health benefits though, so I reserve these for making dressings and sauces. I really don’t heat them through cooking or baking. There are so many varieties of olive oil with a wide array of flavors that they make perfect dressing bases, giving a delicious flavor profile to our recipes.
Other fats I use include butter and ghee. Butter is loved in our household, and has such a rich depth of flavor to it. It just makes everything better! I do bake with butter, when I am baking for those without dairy intolerances. Ghee is simply clarified butter. This is butter that has been heated until the solids separate from the liquids, and then are skimmed and separated. This removes the milk proteins from the butter and leaves a gorgeous yellow butter more suitable for those who normally do not tolerate butter. Why do I like butter? Aside from the flavor of course, it is rich in vitamins D and K. These important guys go a long way in boosting our health, supporting systems such as skeletal, cardiovascular, immune, and even neurological mechanisms. So yeah, they are kind of important! Again, source is important. I use grass fed butter and ghee. This ensures the maximum amount of nutrition for the cows, and therefore us, who so thoughtfully provide us with the dairy to make our butter.
I am a sucker for fancy things, so on occasion I use walnut oil, hazelnut or macadamia oils, and of course we can’t forget sesame oil. But just like olive oils, I really reserve these oils for dressings and last minute additions. I get the flavor boost but forego damage to the molecules through heating.
And an important note to consider is that I am not just referring to heat happening during cooking. (Because I can see you thinking, I’ll just use these unsaturated fat oils for other things, like dressings.) No, no, no. Just the process of making the oils creates a fair amount of heat. The pressure of grinding alone can do this. These oils are just better off not used. And if you have them in your pantry, now is a good time to just go ahead and get rid of them. They are generally inexpensive, grown en masse, and under less than natural circumstances. Canola oil, peanut oil, soybean oil- those are high high high on the GMO list. This free radical activity released through improper temperatures and treatment is what contributes to so many degenerative and chronic diseases. Short term use that equals long term effects? Just not worth it.
What is worth it? Investing in you by using quality ingredients, and using them well. Look for brands you can trust, and apply the rule of organic or grass fed where appropriate. Then cook and enjoy with the reassurance that you’re doing your body and your tastebuds a favor!