Whether you’re a Michelin-starred chef or an utter kitchen novice, it’s essential to pick the right oils for the job. Some oils are all-purpose culinary workhorses, others should be reserved for special jobs, and some oils, when heat is added, become extremely toxic to the body. So, how to recognize the healthy from the not-so-much? Here’s my oil-based cheat sheet:
Ditch ‘vegetable oil’ – there are no veggies involved.
Among the oils that you should jettison are the seemingly healthy ‘vegetable’ oils many of us grew up on. Turns out, cheap and plentiful oils like canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, rice bran and soy are among the unhealthiestfoods you can have in your pantry. And there are no vegetable health benefits to be had from them either! These heavily processed (with chemical solvents) seed oils were originally manufactured for industrial use, not human consumption. They can trigger seriously damaging inflammation in the body, especially when they’re heated, so cooking with them is an absolute health no-no. When heated, they degrade, releasing a number of toxic compounds including a group of volatile compounds called aldehydes – which are linked to increased risk for heart, brain and gastric diseases, as well as cancer. So don’t be fooled by pretty labels marked ‘heart-healthy’ or ‘trans fat free.’ These oils are dangerous and their designations are downright deceptive.
Purge the pantry.
It you have a collection of half-full bottles of canola, soybean, sunflower or corn oil taking up space in your pantry, now is the time to clear the decks and get rid of the stuff. Do not, however, pour it down the sink, as that will (over time) wreak havoc on your plumbing and contribute to the ‘fatburg’ scourge that’s plaguing sewer systems in major cities all over the world. Instead, find out how your local government handles oil disposal or find a service that will take it off your hands or buy it to process into biodiesel fuel. Also steer clear of fast food –particularly fried foods – and processed foods, including most bottled salad dressings, to avoid these troubling oils.
Restock the kitchen with delicious, health-supportive oils.
What makes the good-for-you oil list? Think fruit and nuts, including olive oil, walnut oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil, which are pressed to extract the oils, versus pulverized with heavy-duty industrial solvents. Other oils to blend into your kitchen repertoire include products from health-conscious purveyors like Fatworks and Paleo Butter Co, who specialize in making high-quality “real fats” for cooking. When you restock the larder, be on the lookout for organic, unrefined, and expeller-pressed or ‘cold pressed’ oils, which means they’ve not been exposed to nutrient-neutralizing high heat or chemical solvents. Look for organic or artisanal producers and products free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. If you prefer animal fats for cooking, they should be sourced from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals. Remember, the cleaner the source, the better and more nutritious these cooking fats will be for your body.
Know what your oil can do – and what it can’t.
All oils are not created equal, especially when they hit the pan, so the oil you choose can make a big difference. It’s the reason why you should keep a variety of options on hand to safely handle all your cooking projects. With each of the oils or fats you use, be aware of its ‘smoke point,’ meaning the highest temperature it can reach before it starts to smoke and produce damaging byproducts. In the pan, the smoke point is that moment when the oil or fat stops shimmering and starts smoking or burning. Here a few of the most common good-for-you oils and fats to cook with, and how they handle the heat:
- Neutral taste, withstands high-heat cooking. Great for a lighter-flavored mayonnaise too.
- Smoke point: 430 °F
- Versatile, shelf-stable. Great for baking, sautéing, frying eggs, making stews, or deep-frying. Look for 100 percent grass-fed.
- Smoke point: 400 °F
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL (EVOO)
- Great raw for dressings and dips, and great for cooking, helping to boost the nutrition of just about everything it touches. Buy with care though: always choose genuine extra-virgin, it dark glass bottles and make sure it’s no more than eighteen months old.
- Smoke point: 374 °F
GOOSE AND DUCK FAT
- Rich flavor. Great for omelets and roasting vegetables. Choose pasture-raised, supplemented with non-GMO feed if necessary.
- Smoke point: 375 °F
- A nutrient-rich fat if you are not averse to dairy. Use to spread, or for medium-heat cooking – butter can easily burn at high heat.
- Smoke point: 300 °F
- Butter that has been “clarified” – meaning heated and separated – to create oil without the milk proteins. High smoke point, equally delicious stirred into hot foods and drinks. Some brands are now lab-verified to ensure they contain no milk proteins.
- Smoke point: 480 °F
- Rendered fat from pigs, able to withstand medium to high heat. Great for baking and occasional frying. Seek fully pasture-raised.
- Smoke point: 360 °F
- Another robust plant fat for medium-high heat. Caution! Only choose unrefined, sustainably sourced palm oil. The palm oil industry has done tremendous harm to rain forest ecologies so make sure your brand is “conflict free.”
- Smoke point: 420 °F
VIRGIN COCONUT OIL
- A heat-safe fat that takes medium to high heat well. Has immune-boosting effects. Look for oil that is not deodorized or bleached. As a general rule, regular coconut oil or refined coconut oil is of lesser quality.
- Smoke point: 450 °F
Don’t be afraid to cook with olive oil.
Though most of us are used to topping our salads with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), many people shy away from cooking with it due to its moderate smoke point (roughly 374 °F). Though it’s wise to be conscious of what your oil can and cannot handle, with EVOO, it’s the high concentration of polyphenols in the oil, aka the nutrients and antioxidants, that help ensure heat stability, making it a safe and healthy choice to use for cooking, sautéing, boiling and even frying. Better yet, cooking with EVOO also helps add those all important phenol compounds to the veggies you’re cooking, making them even more nutritious than just the raw veggie. More nutrition? More taste? Count us in!
Treat your oil with care.
Oils, at least the good ones that you should be using, don’t last forever, so handle them with care. Since fragile plant fats degrade quickly, store them away from direct sunlight, ideally in dark bottles – and resist the urge to keep them out on the counter where oven heat and light can speed the degrading process. To add an extra layer of protection from oil-damaging light, wrap your bottles in tin foil. Try to buy smaller amounts – only in glass bottles, never plastic – and use quickly, ideally within three months. If you find yourself with more than you can use, consider freezing some of it to preserve freshness.