Fat is back! HOORAY! We now know that fat is not the nutritional villain it was once made out to be. We need fat to produce hormones, make healthy cell membranes, and, perhaps most importantly, to make our food taste good! But how healthy a fat or oil is depends on two things:
- The source of the fat.
- How you’re using it – at what temperature are you cooking with the fat or oil?
There are three types of fat: saturated, unsaturated, and polyunsaturated, and, when it comes to cooking, the first thing you need to know is degree of saturation.
The more saturated a fat is, the less vulnerable it is to heat damage.
You want to try and avoid eating damaged fats, as research shows that, once inside your body, damaged fats can spark “free radical cascades,” otherwise known as oxidative damage, which has been linked to numerous health conditions.
Below we give our guidelines for the healthiest fats and oils to eat and use while cooking, what to look for when shopping for fats and oils, and the fats and oils that you should never eat (or at least try and avoid when you can).
The Best Fats & Oils for Cooking at High Temperatures
Includes frying, braising, baking, sautéing, grilling, and pan-roasting. Anything above 375°F is considered high-heat cooking.
Which fat to choose: Saturated
We now know that, when eaten in moderation, saturated fat can have a place in a healthy diet. Additionally, saturated fats have been shown to hold up the best when exposed to high heat.
- Coconut oil
- Animal fat (pork, beef, duck)
Note: While being mostly saturated, butter does contains milk proteins, which can burn!
Pro Tip: Add a bit of coconut oil to your butter to make it more stable and keep it from burning.
What to Look for When Shopping for Animal Fats:
As we’ve mentioned before, all animals store toxins in their fat cells. It’s important that when you eat animal products with a high fat content, or, cook with animal fat, that it is coming from an animal that’s been raised ethically and allowed to graze on their natural diet of grass and bugs. Look for the terms:
The Best Fats & Oils for Cooking at Low to Medium Temperatures
Medium-heat cooking includes simmering and reductions and ranges from 325°F to 374°F. Medium-low heat ranges from 250°F to 324°F.
Which fat to choose: Saturated or monounsaturated fats
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Macadamia nut oil
The Best Fats & Oils to be Used Cold – DO NOT HEAT!
Methods: These oils are best consumed cold, drizzled on top of salads or used as a finishing flavor on cooked dishes.
Which fat to choose: Polyunsaturated fats
- Sesame seed oil - since this oil is over 40% polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), save it as a topping, to drizzle over the food once it’s cooked.
- Flaxseed oil
- Walnut oil
The WORST Cooking Fats & Oils
Type of Fat: Vegetable Oils
Not actually made from vegetables, these oils are mostly made from seeds and include: canola (rapeseed), cottonseed, soybean, sunflower, safflower oil.
Unlike a ripe avo or juicy olive, it’s hard to squeeze oil out of a seed.
The process to create these “vegetable” oils usually requires extreme high-heat, multiple rounds of processing, and chemical solvents.
Why does this matter? Because these seeds and soybeans consist, primarily, of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which – as we said – become damaged when exposed to heat.
In other words, these oils are damaged before they ever even hit your pan.
Always Read Your Labels!
And while you may not be picking up a giant bottle of canola oil or a tub of Crisco, you might not be aware that vegetable oils are typically used in most restaurants and are in almost ALL pre-packaged foods – even if they’re organic!
When buying any kind of packaged food, always be sure to read the ingredients for hidden vegetable oils.
Foods That Are Most Likely to Contain Vegetable Oils:
- Baked goods
- Salad dressings
- Frozen foods
What About Smoke Point?
By now you’re probably wondering why we haven’t mentioned smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature at which the protein, minerals, enzymes, and other compounds naturally found in oil, begin to burn - this is the reason why butter will burn before ghee. Butter contains milk proteins, whereas ghee has been clarified to have all the proteins removed. This burning releases free radicals and a substance called acrolein – the chemical that gives burnt foods that nasty taste and smell.
Smoke point is important, but you can damage a fat long before it starts to smoke.
Oils that have been refined, such as canola oil, have had all their proteins removed, so they have very high smoke points, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are polyunsaturated fats and extremely fragile when exposed to heat.
If the oil you’re cooking with contains polyunsaturated fats they are damaged by heat – regardless of smoke point.
Extra Virgin? Cold-pressed? WHAT!???
So you’ve got the oils down, but then there’s all these other words bombarding you: cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, extra virgin, light, etc., etc.
What’s the difference?
Simply look for any word that indicates that the oil has been refined, such as “light.” You don’t need to refine something that has been extracted in a gentle way,” such as olive oil or avocado oil.
Expeller-pressed is the same thing as cold-pressed and extra-virgin means that the oil is made from the first pressing, i.e. no refinement.
4 Simple Rules to Shopping for Fats & Oils
Just remember these four tips:
- The higher the cooking temperature, the more saturated your fat/oil should be.
- Avoid the word “light” or “refined”.
- If your oil starts to smoke, throw it out and start again.
- When in doubt, cook low and slow.