Cooking with Oil: Knowing What to Throw in the Pan
Many of us grew up in a house where the main fat used for everyday cooking was likely butter, Crisco, vegetable oil, the “healthy” alternative, margarine—or a combination of all of these. Over the past fifteen years or so, the promotion of heart-healthy oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, led many home cooks to switch up their cooking fat of choice. Despite the promoted benefits of cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil (and other light vegetable varieties), cooking with these oils isn’t as straightforward as it seems, at least it isn’t to me. I thought I was doing right by using extra virgin olive oil for cooking, but as time went on, I read more about how it could be working against me.
All oils have what is called a “smoke point,” which is basically a temperature at which, when reached, the oil starts to smoke, and can become dangerous to eat. According to the Cleveland Clinic—one of the top research hospitals in the country—when a cooking oil reaches its smoke point, it breaks down and “produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals (the stuff we’re trying to prevent in the first place).”
Given the harmful changes that can occur in cooking oil, it’s important to make sure you’re using the right one for the job. While extra virgin olive oil is a popular choice these days, you really don’t want to cook with it at very high heat. It has a lower smoke point than some other oils, and many of the nutritional benefits (and great flavor) can get lost when cooked at a high heat.
So What Should You Use?
There are various guidelines* highlighting what oils are best for specific types of cooking, but in general, it’s good to remember that the more refined (or processed) an oil is, the higher the smoke point. The less refined, the lower the smoke point. For example, sunflower oil is great for high-heat cooking (deep fry/high oven temperature use), while extra virgin olive oil is best for medium-heat (moderate sautéing).
For any really great tasting (and often more expensive) oil you have in your kitchen, save it for tossing on salads or finished meals, or mixing in soft cheeses. Regardless of what oils you use, even healthier oils contain high amounts of fat and should be used sparingly. Stick with heart-healthy, antioxidant rich variations more often than not, or use substitutions when you can. Some ideas are cooking with water (for the steam effect like in a wok) or using wine, which contains no fat.
What’s Hot Now: Coconut Oil
All I seem to hear about now in healthy-eating circles is how fabulous coconut oil is—for frying, sautéing, and even for smearing on your skin and hair! In its virgin form, coconut oil has experienced a comeback** from a decade or two ago, when it was deemed (albeit in its partially hydrogenated form) a bad culinary choice. But, good news! It is now believed to have some health benefits and is another option for your cooking arsenal, especially since it has a pretty high smoke point. You can find raw coconut oil in any health foods store. I bought some a few weeks ago and find that it’s a nice option to have, also so I don’t run through my high-quality vegetable oils too quickly.
Erin Shea is a Guest Blogger for the Regal Fig and We are super excited to have her! Erin is a local communicator and food blogger who launched my.food.is this spring. This site shares her experiences in the kitchen cooking original and often borrowed recipes and techniques (most good, some bad) she has learned along the way. Erin is also a member of the advisory (cheese!) board for Sona Creamery, D.C.’s first cheese creamery in more than 100 years, which is set to open on Capitol Hill in November 2013. Please check out Erin’s blog at my.food.is or look for her here in the future!
* Cleveland Clinic – Oils 101
* Mayo Clinic – Nutrition and Healthy Eating
* New York Times – Oils for Cooking and Drizzling
** New York Times – Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World