Ever left oil in a hot pan and seen it start to smoke? That’s an indication of the fats' smoking point, or the heat at which it starts to oxidize, release free radicals and becomes rancid. This isn’t good for taste or health; think burnt flavors and harmful carcinogens being introduced into your food.
When it comes to cooking, you want to use stable fats that have a high smoking point. Generally speaking, these are saturated fats from animals (butter, lard, chicken fat) and some plants (like coconuts); their primary characteristic is that they are solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats—including your beloved olive oil—are considered unstable. From a molecular standpoint, it just means that the bonds between the carbon atoms are a little loose and they’re more susceptible to degradation, especially when heated. This doesn’t make these oils bad—in fact, they’re very very good for you—just not ideal for cooking.
So what should you use and when? Here’s a simple breakdown to make cooking with fat a breeze:
BAKE, SAUTÉ AND FRY WITH THESE.
Coconut oil: The best plant based oil to cook with.
Butter: Look for organic, grass fed butter and only if you’re not sensitive to dairy.
Ghee: Basically clarified butter, which is made when you separate the fat from the milk solids and is better for people sensitive to dairy.
Animal fats: Duck, chicken, pork.
SAVE FOR YOUR SALAD DRESSINGS, GARNISHES AND OTHER COLD FOODS.
Olive oil: Invest in a good cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, if you can. The taste and nutritional value are worth the few extra dollars.
Avocado oil: Great for making salad dressings.
Nuts and seeds (including sesame oil): Use as a garnish or in dressings to add healthy fats to your meals.
ABORT! AVOID THESE GUYS ALL TOGETHER.
Processed vegetable fats: these are basically unsaturated fats that have been chemically altered to increase their smoking point. No Bueno! Be especially careful of fried foods, as they are often made with canola oil.
A note about canola (or corn) oil: last time I checked, corn was not an oily or fatty food (not like avocado, coconut or walnuts). Where do they get this “oil”? Doesn’t sound very natural, if you ask me.
I recognize that there’s a lot of confusion about fats these days. If you’re baffled by the American Heart Association’s recent attack on saturated fats (including coconut oil), you should be. It’s extremely misleading. To learn more about how these claims have been poorly researched and reported on, read this.