Cooking Oils: It's Getting Hot in Here
You’re reaching for a pan... which oil do you grab? How do you choose that oil? Do you want a neutral oil, or do you want to taste it? Are you sautéing, roasting, frying, baking, grilling? Will you whisk together a vinaigrette with olive oil? Or no, toasted sesame seed oil. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since you bought that. Is it still good? *sniff* Oh gawd.
If you’ve ever kept an oil around for too long, you can tell it smells funky. If you’re cooking with an oil, it’s helpful to know the smoke point (i.e. the point in which it burns and degrades). For cooking, we like to use coconut and avocado oil (as well as animal fats like ghee and lard) that can withstand more heat. Many 'virgin' oils shouldn't be used for cooking as they turn rancid at high temperature–not only can they taste off, but they oxidize and essentially become toxins. Not something you want to consume often (or ever, really). Fries are delicious, but it’s smart to start making some baked fries at home as a healthier option.
Heated past its smoke point, that fat starts to break down, releasing free radicals and a substance called acrolein, the chemical that gives burnt foods their acrid flavor and aroma. Think watering eyes, a stinky kitchen, and bitter, scorched food.
Like a Virgin
An unrefined or 'virgin' oil is one that is extracted by simply crushing and pressing the nut, seed, or fruit. Generally, unrefined oils retain more nutrients than refined oils, which are filtered and sometimes bleached and chemically treated. Refined oils tend to be more neutral in flavor and can withstand higher heat. Unrefined oils are usually more flavorful and delicate–best used for finishing a dish like in a vinaigrette–and should be avoided as a cooking oil.
So, bottom line–avoid using a virgin, flavorful, and delicate oil for cooking, and make sure your cooking oils are refined through processes like filtering and steam-distillation. Thrive Market sources products you can trust at affordable prices (25% off plus FREE SHIPPING right now).
Here are our favorites that can take the heat:
A great option for higher heat cooking, avocado oil is pressed from the flesh of the fruit. It retains some nutrients from the avocado, and it’s liquid at room temperature so it’s easy to work with. Avocado oil is generally neutral in flavor. We love this one. We have encountered one that was stronger in taste by Roland which we personally didn’t like. According to the Environmental Working Group, avocados rank among the lowest of all fruits and vegetables for pesticide use (and their thick skin is protective), so it’s not so important to buy organic.
Yep, the magic stuff. '101 uses for coconut oil' and all that jazz. But it’s true, it’s a great product nutritionally and it can withstand high temperatures. When you’re shopping, note that they can vary greatly in quality. There are unrefined, virgin, whole kernel, cold-pressed organic ones (that usually smell lightly of coconut), and there are more refined options that may not retain all of the nutrients but have a neutral flavor and can take even more heat (think french fries). Look at the label to know what you’re getting, because there are chemically processed, hydrogenated and bleached versions (most are heavily refined unless they say otherwise). There are some refined options that aren’t chemically treated and use processes like steam-distillation. And there’s also fractionated coconut oil (sometimes called MCT oil) which is liquid at room temperature. It also has a longer shelf life than an unprocessed coconut oil and is neutral. It is often used by massage therapists, and as a carrier oil for topical essential oil application.
Ah, olive oil. So good simply with crusty bread. Generally olive oil can withstand a little bit of heat (if you’re sautéing), but avoid using it for higher heat cooking like roasting, baking, frying, or grilling. Note that extra virgin olive oil is more delicate and should be reserved for drizzling over cooked things or making a vinaigrette. In terms of quality, you want to be sure you’re not consuming something that was chemically processed and/or not what it claims to be. So on the label you’ll want to look for cold pressed and pesticide-free. Here’s a link to a great article by the Kitchn about choosing olive oil.
Butter & Ghee
Ghee is butter without the milk solids. Why is that good? It means a higher smoke point and it won’t burn (and taste gross) when you’re cooking at a higher temperature. It’s easy to make, but you can also buy it in store or online here. To make it you can just melt some butter in a pan on low heat until liquid. Then pour off the golden goodness into a jar, leaving the solids at the bottom of the pan. Voila! Ghee. Ghee can withstand higher heat cooking, and it keeps longer in the fridge.
About animal fats… we believe that the only animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) you should be eating should come from animals raised humanely and without hormones. That means cows that graze on grass, chickens that live outside and peck around freely, and pigs that can flop down wherever they like and aren’t confined to a teeny tiny cage. Animals that are factory farmed live in pretty unsanitary conditions and are fed things they generally shouldn’t be eating. When we eat those animal products, we are consuming those things as well. This can lead to a damaged gut, allergies, inflammation, etc. There’s plenty of info on the internet about this, so I don’t think we need to go into details here…
Sounds kind of gross, no? But it can bring a lot of delicious flavor and nutrients into your food, and can be used for higher heat cooking. You can use the rendered fat from your own meat and keep it in your fridge to use like butter. You can also buy lard if you don’t happen to cook meat often. Go to your butcher, a farmer’s market, or buy online here. Again, sourcing your meat is important! We're going to try Butcher Box and we'll let you know how it goes.
So there you have it, food for thought. Take a minute to go through your kitchen cabinets and sniff out your old oils (here's how to dispose of them). Try out some avocado oil, coconut oil or ghee for your higher-heat cooking and save any delicate oils for drizzling. Happy cooking!
Leave a comment below if you'd like to know more about other oils :)