Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ask the Internet: Best Cooking Fat?

Today’s question comes from reader Alice. She writes:

A: Can we talk about cooking fat for a sec? What do you (and/or the readers) have to say about the pros and cons of cooking with different oils?

I usually save the butter for either baking or direct use (e.g., toast) and then cook with either olive or grapeseed oil (or sesame, if I want that taste). Lately though, I've head that grapeseed isn't so great (full of omega 6's, which we already get too many of). On the other hand, I've heard that canola (high in those 'good for you' omega 3's) is a really heavily sprayed crop and it's better to avoid it. The trouble with olive is that you can't get it too hot and it has as others and it has a taste.

Thoughts on a healthy, neutral, can-cook-at-high-temperatures-with-it oil? I know you're not a dietitian, but I thought I'd throw this one out there. Anyone?

A: Good question, Alice! With a few exceptions, I use three basic cooking fats:

1) EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL. I like its heart healthiness, plus the subtle flavor it imparts to some dishes. Good on salads and in nearly all marinades, too. I’ve read lately, though, that it’s almost interchangeable with regular olive oil. Has anyone tried the blends?

2) VEGETABLE OIL. Cheaper and seemingly more neutral in flavor than olive oil, I often saute or bake with this. It’s pretty versatile, especially for the price, and supermarket vegetable oil (usually soybean oil) has a good fat breakdown (15% saturated, 21% monounsaturated, 61% polyunsaturated).

3) BUTTER. Like Holly, butter goes primarily into my baked goods and on toast. But I’ve found that it enhances eggs, mushrooms, and a few other random foods, as well. I don’t use spreads (a la Country Crock), because honestly, they freak me out a little. Ma swears by them, so maybe I’m wrong.

Beyond those, I occasionally whip out canola oil for kicks, peanut and/or sesame oil for Chinese dishes, margarine for lactose-intolerant friends, and shortening for greasing. A small batch of truffle oil sits in the back of my condiment shelf for special occasions. We own corn oil, but I’ve only ever used it once.

Readers, what about you? What cooking fats do you use most often? What do you avoid at all costs? What the heck is a safflower? Alice and the comment section await.

Want to ask the interweb a question? Post one in the comment section, or write to Cheaphealthygood@gmail.com. Then, tune in next Tuesday for an answer/several answers from the good people of the World Wide Net.

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wosnes said...

I use extra virgin olive oil, butter and canola oil. I use more olive oil than butter and more butter than canola oil.

desidou said...

Have you ever tried cooking with coconut oil (it's in a solid form at room temp) - you can find it at health food stores. Supposed to be very good for you and good for cooking at high temps.

I just started using it and I like it so far.

Chris said...

EVOO is my most common oil as well. But I also use a fair bit of canola (especially in high-temp things like stir fries). For things that aren't getting much other seasoning I often do a combo of olive oil and butter or bacon fat - this is good for eggs, shrimp, or anything else you'll probably only hit with salt and pepper in cooking.

Bacon fat in particular is wonderful and I will sometimes use it instead of olive oil in dishes with a mexican or southwestern feel. Try it, for example, when you cook the veggies for rice and beans. If you throw it away you're crazy.

wanderlustandfoodstuff said...

I use extra virgin olive oil almost exclusively. For high heat cooking, I do have a bottle of canola in the cupboard.

And for things like toast and a few other instances, I use a spread called Earth Balance, available in health food stores. This is not margarine! I almost like the taste better than butter, and dare I say, I believe it is better for you.

Also--just a comment on the olive oil--I always use a very high quality extra virgin, first cold pressing oil. The color is practically green and it looks pretty cloudy, but it tastes amazing. For salads and marinades, this is a must for me.

shris said...

EVOO has a lower smoke point than 'light' olive oils. That said, I use EVOO for a saute before assembling a sauce that tastes good with it.

I use butter for cooking when the butter flavor is helpful, like with mushrooms and grilled sandwiches and eggs and the like.

I use canola/vegetable oil when it's called for in baking or for deep frying, since our fry temp doesn't go very high most of the time.

Sesame, walnut, etc. for flavoring when called for..

Safflowers are small flowers that are grown for a few different uses, mostly the seed oil. They also can be used to make food dyes and other stuff, says wikipedia.

Michelle said...

I use butter, olive oil, and coconut oil. For very specific purposes, I will use peanut oil (making peanut butter, frying turkey) or sesame oil (stir-fries). But I rely heavily on butter, olive oil, and coconut oil.

Diane said...

I use olive oil for western food (and sometimes canola, although I am trying to use less), coconut oil and ghee for Indian food, and peanut oil for all other asian food. I use butter for baking and for finishing things like risotto or polenta.

Never use grapeseed oil.

chacha1 said...

Olive oil, butter, and canola - only for baking, that one. In the past I used some macadamia nut oil and LOVED it - high smoke point, great flavor for every conceivable Asian or vegetable dish - but haven't gone looking for more, hmmm, lazy.

Also use rendered bacon fat and duck fat. Grrrrrreat flavors.

Nancy said...

Always in my kitchen -- butter w/out salt, olive oil and canola oil. You'll also find coconut oil which we only use for popping popcorn.

David said...

Coconut oil has tons of saturated fat as does just about any oil that is solid at room temperature. Canola oil is the best health choice for high temperature cooking. If you are worried about pesticides, use organic. If the price point makes you cringe, well, you are probably using too much oil in your cooking!

wosnes said...

Oh, I use bacon fat, too! I don't think that butter or bacon fat is as bad for you as we've been led to believe they are.

Claire Dawson said...

I definitely use a lot of canola oil for high-temp cooking - that means virtually any saute or stir fry. Olive oil has way too low a smoke point to saute anything that you need high heat for.

As far as extra virgin versus other types - if you're cooking with it, you're wasting your money on extra virgin olive oil. The proteins that are retained in the first cold press and second press (which qualify for the "extra virgin" label) are denatured by heat, so unless you're leaving it cold, as in dressings and uncooked sauces, or for plain dipping, you'll lose the "extra virgin" flavor. So, keep it for cold stuff, and get some cheaper, still flavorful blended olive oil for cooking.

I think I'm done sounding like a total know-it-all now. Blame Alton Brown. This is his fault.


High temperature/neutral flavor; 2 parts canola and one part olive oil (I pre-mix my oils).

Med temperature/rich flavor - olive oil. If a taste of 'butter' will enhance the item then 2 parts olive oil/one part butter since it won't burn if it's mixed with olive oil (or any other higher temperature oil for that matter).

Low temperature/rich flavor - butter with equal parts olive oil; start melting the butter first and immediately add equal amount of olive oil.

Low temperature/butter 'flavor' only desired = only butter. I usually make up a batch of clarified butter and keep it in the refrigerator, so there's never any 'browning'. If I want browning (such as on mushrooms), then I use 'only butter'.......

High temperature/'bacon' flavor desired = one part bacon fat/2 parts canola oil (I store bacon fat in the refrigerator in a covered container; rarely use bacon - about 3# a year). Because we only use bacon when I make chowders or turn it into 'bits' for flavoring, I have a small amount of fat. We enjoy this flavoring in green beans (fresh ones) or spinach as a 'flavoring agent'.

Now on to the FRYING aspect, since you said best 'cooking' fat....

Peanut Oil - high temperature when the flavor of peanut oil ENHANCES the item being fried.

We rarely fry anything because it's not good for you, so everything is either baked or broiled. On a rare occasion we fry a batch of chicken (about once every 3 years), so I don't keep peanut oil on hand - just buy it when that 'fun day' is decided.

If I were to FRY anything that needed a neutral flavor, I would use canola; sunflower, or vegetable oil.

I treat sesame oil almost as a condiment; we don't like it in many things (certainly not cooking directly), but when I'm doing an asian dish, I sprinkle it on lightly about 30 seconds before removing the food - turn the food around in the pan, and remove.

I think Sesame oil 'shines' when it's not subjected to heat too long, and used 'after the fact' with a light hand.

As a BAKING fat, I use Crisco butter flavor, but again we keep pastries limited to once a month (for health), and when I do decide the pastry is to be a 'pie', then absolutely lard for a crispy crust.

I've been doing this 'regime' for 50 years now; my husband is 75, and I really feel that since we've both had recent medical check-ups and received excellent reports about our health, that every step a person takes to reduce FAT into the body, really pays off.

Also, we only eat red meat once a month; we eat salmon and cod 2 to 3 times a week; only pork loin (the leanest), and only white chicken breast (no skin), so it does require 'browning' these foods, and picking the healthiest method of doing so.

Note on coconut oil: It's great for caring for your own skin, but I do not like it one bit for cooking, and definitely the grapeseed oil fits into the same category - just put it on your face and body for an excellent 'treatment', but not in your food.....just my experience.

Christy said...

I use only olive oil (flavor and monounsaturated fats), canola oil (best omega 3 profile), almond oil (high heat), a little butter and a little bacon grease (refried beans, ONLY). For shortening I only use the Spectrum organic shortening. I think it's palm oil.

Alice said...

Wow, thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Coconut oil raises an interesting question...food for thought (ha!). @Nancy - coconut for popcorn sounds yummy! @David, I'd buy organic canola if I could find it!

Sounds like most people use a mix of butter, olive oil, and vegetable oil, but that the vegetable oil tends to vary: canola, coconut, or sunflower. I'll have to do a bit more reading on the vegetable oil front.....any more ideas welcome.


Jaime said...

I sautee with olive oil or butter, depending on the case. (I'm a pretty hardcore lactard, and do fine with butter.) I use toasted sesame oil for flavor. I've heard good things about coconut oil - it's saturated fat, but the healthy kind. (And saturated fat isn't necessarily bad for you.) An interesting look at the question is here. Not such glowing things to say about vegetable oils, but I think cold- or expeller-pressed is an exception.

Anonymous said...

Bacon fat rules! However, I do use olive oil and a butter combination also, depending on what I'm cooking.

Anonymous said...

Bacon fat!! Hands down, it has the best taste and makes awesome gravy. Cook about 1/4 pound bacon cut into small pieces. After the bacon is fully cooked remove the bacon and leave the fat in the pan. Add about an equal amount of flour to the bacon fat and heat until the flour begins to change color (or sooner). Then stir/whip in a can of chicken broth and bring to a boil. Turn down to barely bubbling and add salt and pepper to taste. This gravy will turn you on! Save the bacon bits for your next baked potato.

Donna Freedman said...

So glad to see I'm not the only bacon-fat user! I keep it in the fridge and it seems to keep forever.
No one's mentioned lard yet. But I won't, either.

Johnny B said...

I use olive oil, peanut oil, butter, bacon fat and soybean oil, pretty much in that order.

Most days I use olive oil (not extra virgin, as noted by others). I use peanut oil for high temperature, most Asian food and frying potatoes. I use butter or a butter/olive oil mixture to raise the smoking point (as noted by Happy in Nevada above) for sauteeing vegetables. I also use bacon fat (or occasionally ghee or clarified butter) for sauteeing vegetables. Cauliflower sauteed in bacon fat is excellent. I also keep soybean oil on hand in case I need something neutral.

Sesame oil, like chili oil, is more of a condiment than a cooking oil. I've used grapeseed oil in the past, but can't find any reason to use it over a blended olive oil.

Heidi said...

Currently in my house: canola spray, olive oil spray, canola oil, olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, garlic flavored olive oil, sesame oil, chili oil, hazelnut oil, peanut oil, coconut oil, butter flavored shortening, unsalted butter, salted butter and bacon fat.

Sound crazy? With the exception of pastry crust and scones (which have an extraordinary amount of fat), I rarely use more than a tablespoon of any of these at a time. It's not so much what you use - it's how much you use. I choose my fat based on the flavor (or lack thereof) that I'm looking for. A great trick for cutting down the amount of fat you use when sauteeing: use a good quality, heavy, nonstick skillet and a pastry brush to "paint" on a layer of fat. Yes, it's one more utensil to clean, but it's worth the effort.

MM said...

I generally try to avoid any oil that is made from something that isn't high fat to begin with. Olive oil - great! The oil just has to be pressed out. Ditto with sesame oil or peanut oil. But vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil or cottonseed oil. I don't even want to know what they have to do to the plants to make that oil.

I try to stick with olive oil, coconut oil and butter most of the time.

Elizabeth said...

I use peanut oil for stir-fry, olive oil for vegetables and pasta, butter for baking and flavor, and canola oil for anything else. The quantity I use is in that order as well I think. I may use equal parts olive and peanut oil though. I don't have any reasons for why I use these other than taste and ease.

Liz said...

Check out a book called Real Food: What to Eat and Why
~ Nina Planck. She goes into a lot of detail on why certain fats are better for you from a health perspective. She recommends olive oil, butter and coconut oil, all as un-refined as you can find.