For centuries, people have rendered fat, squeezed olives, collected cream and caught fish to obtain the fatty acids their brains, nervous systems, immune systems and body cells need to function well. Luckily for us, things are a bit easier these days and the oils we need for good health are readily available. Not all oils are created equal, though. No one oil can be used for all things; instead, each has its distinct place in the kitchen.
Keep these basic categories in mind when you’re cooking:
For baking: Coconut, palm, canola and high oleic safflower and sunflower oil work best.
For frying: Because they stand up well to the heat, peanut, palm and sesame oil are ideal for frying.
For sautéing: canola, coconut, grapeseed, olive, sesame and high oleic safflower and sunflower oils.
For dipping, dressings and marinades: When it comes to making dressings and marinades, or finding oil that’s perfect to serve alongside crusty bread for dipping, you’re looking for flavor. For this purpose look to avocado, flax, olive, peanut, toasted sesame or walnut oil.
TYPES OF OILS
Avocado Oil: Pressed from avocados, this smooth, nutty oil is more than 50% monounsaturated, making it a heart-healthy choice. Use it in salad dressings or to saute fish, chicken, sweet potatoes or plantains.
Canola Oil: A cousin to cabbage and Brussels sprouts. In fact, it’s a variety of rapeseed that’s part of the mustard family. It’s beneficial due to its fatty acid profile and omega-3 and low saturated fat contents. It is perfect for light cooking, sauces and desserts, such as, homemade mayonnaise or tender cakes.
Coconut Oil: Pressed from the fruit of the coconut palm tree, coconut oil is ideal for light and subtly flavored dishes. This oil is particularly good to use for making popcorn and hash browns.
Corn Oil: Most corn oil is extracted only from the germ of the corn kernel and is golden yellow in color; unrefined oil will have a darker color and richer corn taste. Use in salad dressings and dips with stronger flavors like peppers or garlic.
Grapeseed Oil: Grapeseed oil is extracted from the seeds of grapes, a byproduct of the winemaking industry. Use it on salads and raw veggies or in dips, sauces and salsas. Mix grapeseed oil with garlic and basil, then drizzle it on toasted bread.
Olive Oil: A mainstay of the Mediterranean diet and one of the oldest known culinary oils, olive oil is a heart-friendly monounsaturated fat. Extra virgin olive oil results from the first cold-pressing of olives. Regular olive oil is a blend of refined olive oil and extra virgin olive oil. Drizzle over hummus or grilled vegetables.
Peanut Oil: Peanut oil’s high monounsaturated content makes it heart-healthy. Peanut oil is excellent for frying, light sauteing and stir-fries.
Sesame Oil: The seed of the sesame plant provides sesame oil, which has a high antioxidant content. Unrefined sesame oil is a key flavor component in sauces or dressings. Use refined sesame oil for high heat frying and toasted sesame oil for stir fries and Asian sauces and dips.
Fats and oils also play crucial roles in stabilizing blood sugar levels, providing raw materials for making hormones and contributing to a healthy immune system. But remember everything in moderation. Since all fats are calorie-rich, remember not to overindulge.
Fats are one of the three major nutrients of the human diet. The other two are carbohydrates and protein.Triglycerides are the chemical form of fats in food and in the body. Think of fats as a building and triglycerides as the bricks that give it shape. Every triglyceride “brick” consists of a mixture of three fatty acids — saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
A particular fat is defined by the combination of fatty acids that make up its “bricks.” The triglyceride bricks in olive oil, for example, have many more monounsaturated fatty acids than it does saturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids, making olive oil a monounsaturated fat.
Monounsaturated fats are heart-healthy because they maintain good HDL cholesterol levels while lowering bad LDL cholesterol levels. They are more chemically stable than polyunsaturated fat but not as stable as saturated fat. This means they keep better than polyunsaturated oils but not as well as saturated oils.
They are most appropriate for light cooking or used raw in salad dressings and the like. Oils that are predominantly monounsaturated include olive, avocado, peanut and sesame. When stored at room temperature, monounsaturated fats are typically liquid, but they are likely to solidify when stored in the refrigerator.
Due to their unstable chemical structure, polyunsaturated fatty acids are more susceptible to rancidity than saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, especially after prolonged contact with oxygen, light or heat. Oils that are predominately polyunsaturated include walnut, grapeseed, soy, corn and fish oils. These are liquid at room temperature.
Many experts don’t recommend polyunsaturated oils for cooking because they are so easily damaged by heat. They are best used in their raw form, and used quickly at that. Never keep polyunsaturated oils beyond their expiration date. If cooking is necessary, use low temperatures. Polyunsaturated oils should be stored refrigerated in dark bottles.
Saturated fats are the most chemically stable, giving them a long shelf life and the ability to withstand high cooking temperatures. Typically solid at room temperature, saturated fats are found primarily in animal fats and tropical oils.
In general, animal fats such as butter, cream and tallow are predominantly saturated, however, two of the most highly saturated fats — coconut oil and palm kernel oil — come from vegetable sources. Furthermore, animal fats like lard, chicken fat and duck fat are predominantly monounsaturated, while fish oils are predominantly polyunsaturated. And, it is interesting to note that the fatty acid composition of animal fat can vary depending on the diet of the animal.
Animal fats have their place in the kitchen. Many believe that lard makes the best pie crust, and several traditional Hispanic dishes rely on lard for their distinctive flavor. Butter is the most common animal fat in the kitchen and good quality butters are available, as are cream and other dairy-based products used in cooking.
Trans fatty acids are chemically altered, man-made fats found in partially hydrogenated oils. The hydrogenation process, in common use since the early 20th. century, injects hydrogen into vegetable fats under high heat and pressure. This saturates what was previously an unsaturated fat and results in a chemical configuration that is not found in nature and is very rich in trans fatty acids. This is done to make vegetable oils, which are normally liquid at room temperature, solid and more chemically stable, thereby extending the shelf life of products in which they are used. Very small amounts of trans fats do occur naturally in some products such as milk, cheese, beef or lamb.
Trans fats are doubly harmful because they lower HDL (good) cholesterol and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease. In fact, trans fatty acids have an even worse impact on cholesterol levels than diets high in butter, which contain saturated fat. A 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine (a branch of the National Academy of Sciences) concluded that trans fats are not safe to consume in any amount.
The Trans Fat Labeling Law
Effective since January 1, 2006, all products that have a Nutrition Facts Panel must declare the amount of trans fat per serving. This has forced many conventional food manufacturers to reduce or eliminate trans fats from their products. But trans fat still has a significant presence in restaurants and with other food vendors who are not affected by the labeling law.
Some packaged products may still contain significant amounts of trans fats, such as: margarine, shortening, baked goods (pastries, pies, cookies, doughnuts), breakfast cereals, fried foods, crackers and snack foods such as potato chips.
SOME FACTS ABOUT OIL
Heat and light can damage oils, particularly polyunsaturated ones, so keep them in the refrigerator to avoid rancidity. For the record, you’ll know your oil is rancid if it takes on a characteristic bad taste and smell, in which case you should toss it and buy fresh oil.
Some oils, olive oil among them, become cloudy or solidified when refrigerated. It doesn’t affect their quality at all. A few minutes at room temperature and the oil will be back to normal.
Heating oils beyond their smoke point — the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke, generating toxic fumes and harmful free radicals — is never a good idea. Always discard oil that’s reached its smoke point, along with any food with which it had contact. Unsure of an oil’s smoke point? Most labels on bottles of oil will give you the correct temperature.
Some oils are refined to make them more stable and suitable for high temperature cooking. Keep in mind, though, that the process removes most of the flavor, color and nutrients from the oils, too. That’s why refined oils are acceptable for baking and stir-frying, where their high smoke point and neutral flavors are a plus. On the other hand, unrefined oil is simply pressed and bottled so it retains its original nutrient content, flavor and color. Unrefined oils add full-bodied flavor to dishes and are best used for low- or no-heat applications.
Recipes To Try
Whole-Wheat Ginger Scones
Coconut oil is the perfect non-dairy fat to use for scones and other baked goods. These scones have the same rich, flaky texture that scones made with butter have, along with a subtle and pleasing coconut flavor.
- 2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 6 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2/3 cup buttermilk
- 1 tablespoon agave nectar or mild honey
- 1/2 cup finely diced candied ginger
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment.
Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and stir in the sugar. Place in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade or in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle.
Add the coconut oil to the food processor or mixer and pulse several times or beat on low speed until it is distributed throughout the flour and the mixture has the consistency of coarse cornmeal; if you’re using a mixer, it will still have some lumps.
Beat together the buttermilk and agave or honey in a small bowl and add to the food processor or mixer. Add the ginger and process or mix at medium speed just until the dough comes together.
Scrape out onto a lightly floured surface and gently shape into a rectangle, about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into 6 squares, then cut the squares in half on the diagonal to form 12 triangular pieces. Place on the baking sheet. Bake 15 to 18 minutes, until lightly browned. Cool on a rack.
Yield: 12 scones.
GRAPESEED AND WALNUT OILS
Radicchio Salad With Beets and Walnuts
Walnut vinaigrette is especially good with bitter greens like radicchio.
For the dressing:
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- Salt to taste
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (to taste)
- 1 very small garlic clove, puréed
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 2 tablespoons walnut oil
- Freshly ground pepper
For the salad:
- 4 small golden or red beets, roasted, peeled and cut in wedges
- 1 large or 2 small radicchio,
- 2 tablespoons broken walnuts
- 4 to 6 white or cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon
- 2 teaspoons minced chives
Make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the sherry vinegar or lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, salt to taste, Dijon mustard and garlic until combined well. Whisk in the grapeseed oil and the walnut oil. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.
Combine the salad ingredients in a large bowl. Toss with the dressing and serve.
Yield: 4 servings.
Pan-Roasted Sea Bass with Citrus and Avocado Oil
Delicately flavored avocado oil can lose its personality when heated; pour a touch of the oil over food just before serving.
Yield: Makes 4 servings
- 2 oranges
- 2 pink grapefruits
- Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
- 4 – 6-ounce skinless fillets white or Mexican sea bass or grouper (about 1″ thick)
- 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
- 1 avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, cut into wedges
- 4 tablespoons avocado oil
Preheat oven to 450°F. Using a small sharp knife, cut off all peel and white pith from fruit. Working over a medium bowl, cut between membranes to release segments into bowl. Squeeze in juices from membranes; discard membranes. Drain fruit, reserving 1/2 cup juices. Return segments and juices to bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Pat fish dry. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a large heavy ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add grapeseed oil. Add fish; cook without moving, occasionally pressing fish gently with a spatula to keep all of surface in contact with pan, until fish is golden brown and releases easily from pan, 4–5 minutes.
Turn fish, transfer to oven, and roast until just opaque in the center, 3–5 minutes.
Place fruit and avocado on plates. Top with fillets. Spoon 2 tablespoons citrus juices over fruit on each plate. Drizzle 1 tablespoon avocado oil over fish and fruit.
Sear-Roasted Pork Chops with Balsamic-Fig Sauce
Be sure that the oven has reached 425°F before starting to sear—most ovens take 20 to 30 minutes to heat up thoroughly.
Serves four. Sauce yields about 1/2 cup, enough for four servings.
For the Pork:
- 4 boneless center-cut pork chops, 1 to 1-1/2 inches thick (2 to 2-1/2 lb. total)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
For the Balsamic-Fig Sauce:
- 1 cup low-salt chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons. balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup finely chopped dried figs
- 1-1/2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoons. chopped fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into four pieces
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Pork:
Heat the oven to 425°F. Turn the exhaust fan on to high. Pat the pork chops with paper towels. Season both sides generously with salt and pepper (about 1 teaspoon of each total). Heat a 12-inch heavy-based ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, swirl it around the pan, and then evenly space the pork chops in the pan. Cook without touching for 2 minutes.
Using tongs, lift a corner of the pork, check that it’s both well browned and easily releases from the pan, and flip it over. (If it sticks or isn’t well browned, cook for 1 to 2 more min. before flipping.) Cook the second side for 1 minute and then transfer the skillet to the oven.
Roast until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 145°F and is just firm to the touch, about 5 to 8 minutes. Using potholders, carefully remove the pan from the oven, transfer the pork to a large plate, tent with foil, and let it rest while you prepare the sauce in the same skillet.
For the Balsamic-Fig Sauce:
Pour off any excess fat from the skillet. Return the pan to high heat and add the chicken broth and balsamic vinegar. Cook, scraping the pan with a wooden spoon to incorporate any browned bits, until the broth is reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 5 min. Stir in the figs, honey, and thyme and cook until the sauce is reduced by another 1 to 2 tablespoons, about 1 min. Add the butter and swirl it into the sauce until it’s completely melted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle the sauce over the pork chops.
Olive Oil-Braised Vegetables
- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon anchovy paste
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili flakes
- 6 sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed with the side of a knife
- 6 sprigs rosemary
- 1 lemon, ends trimmed, thinly sliced crosswise, seeds removed
- 1 lb. baby Yukon Gold or new potatoes
- 1 medium head broccoli, cut into florets, stalk cut into large pieces
- 1/2 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets, stalk cut into large pieces
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 2 sprigs marjoram, stems removed
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Put the olive oil, anchovy paste, chili flakes, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, rosemary , and lemon slices in a 6-qt. Dutch oven. Place over medium high heat and cook, stirring occasionally , until fragrant and the garlic and the lemon slices are lightly browned, about 5 minutes.
Add the potatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower to the pot and stir once or twice to coat in oil. Cook, covered, without stirring, until the vegetables begin to brown and soften, about 30 minutes.
Stir vegetables gently, replace the lid, and reduce the heat to medium-low; cook until the vegetables are very soft and tender, about 30 minutes more.
Remove the vegetables from the heat, and stir in parsley and marjoram. Drain vegetables and place in a serving dish. Season with salt and pepper.
- Choosing the Best Cooking Oils (belmarrahealth.com)
- Clean Eating 101: Oils (takebackfitness.com)
- Definition: Grapeseed Oil (bellasugar.com)
- Grapeseed Oil (healingfoodculture.wordpress.com)
- Some oily (and other) tips and great latkas for Chanukah (nourishingisrael.wordpress.com)
- Some Common Misconceptions: The Coconut. (livelargespendsmall.wordpress.com)
- Coconut Oil – Myth and Reality (spoonfeast.com)
January 8, 2013 at 8:32 am
Great advice on oils – glad to hear we’ve been using the right ones for the right types of cooking. Mind you, never heard of avocado oil – will have to search it out.
January 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm
Appreciate your comments about oils. I am sure there are local options for buying avocado oil in Europe and Canada but – when all else fails – there is always Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Avocado-Oil-100-Pure-Unrefined/dp/B001DNXD8E
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