Oils are fats, and fat is flavor! Those tasty, luxurious fats that we have been told to eat sparingly – whether to watch our weight or to be healthy. They were deemed public enemy #1 since the 1950’s and put at the top of the first pyramid – as if they were on the top shelf we should rarely reach for.
As time and research have progressed though, our perception of them has come a long way.
As with anything else, not all fats are created equal. Some are natural and great to prepare our meals with, while others need to be highly-processed. So when I think about the proverbial, “You are what you eat,” fats are at the top of my list. Not top of my pyramid or top of my shelves! And for good reason.
Fats are the building blocks of our very cells and the hormones that regulate our bodies. They are the most reliable, long-term energy source for our bodies. Not to mention, our brains need them to wrap around our nerves to efficiently transmit signals to other parts of the brain, muscles, and sensory organs. In a way, they’re like the insulation that protects the many cables we need for all our electronics to work.
So what fats are recommended? What should we prepare delicious and healthy meals with? It depends on how you’re using them, or more specifically, how much heat you’re bringing into the dish.
Heat and Smoke Points
According to science, each substance has a boiling point. For a fat in the kitchen. we call it its smoke point!
And when cooking at higher heat, we want a high smoke point to avoid burning oils.
Ever heat olive oil or butter so high and long that it creates smoke and your food tastes a little off? That’s a sign of your cooking fat going above the smoke point, which isn’t exactly healthy for us.
At high enough heat, fats denature or change by oxidizing, combining, or fragmenting. Essentially, these form free radicals that can adversely affect our health and contribute to aging and possibly cancer in the long-run.
On that note, many vegetable oils are heat-extracted, leading to denaturation and oxidation we don’t want in our bodies. In that sense, it defeats the purpose of supposedly healthy fats from vegetables.
Avocado oil, coconut oil, and ghee.
- Avocado oil is my number one pick as it has a very high smoke point and comes from, well, healthy yet still delicious avocados! For plant-based cooking fats, it has one of the highest smoke points. Others like the common peanut or canola oil have high smoke points too, but are not as healthy. Quite importantly, avocado oil has a very neutral taste that will not overpower your dishes. Flavor and versatility makes the winner here!
- Coconut oil is pretty high up there too, but unlike its avocado counterpart, this oil leaves a more than subtle coconut flavor to food. It works wonderfully in some desserts and tropical/ethnic foods with fish and curries, especially Thai. But even with all the different curries in the world, you won’t be eating that every day. So if you’re sensitive to that coconut flavor, it won’t be great for everyday cooking.
- Ghee is another great choice and comes with arguably, the highest smoke point. Common in Indian cuisine, it’s clarified butter where the milk solids have been removed. So much so that ghee is actually shelf-stable! Otherwise those milk solids would oxidize at high temperatures.
Low-to-no heat Recommendations:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, quality butter, and quality margarines
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil, everyone knows it. And it’s a cornerstone of Mediterranean diets. Definitely want to go with “extra virgin” ones here as they are cold-pressed, not extracted at high heat which can lead to that nasty denaturing and oxidation we talked about. Best consumed over salads or dips, avoiding high heat.
- Quality butters. For me this means grass-fed butter, like Kerrigold. Just like we are what we eat, the same goes for the cows that our butter comes from. Would you rather your happy cow eat green, vitamin-filled grass or just carb-loaded wheat and corn?
- Quality margarines. Rather than cooking with this, stick to using it as a spread. Commonly made of a blend of vegetable oils, this is where you have to do some research – usually in the ingredients list. Like we discussed before, we want to stay away from heat-extracted vegetable oils. In addition, some vegetable oils are extracted with chemicals like hexane, so you will be ingesting a little bit of those chemicals. An “expeller-pressed” or “cold-pressed” oil of some kind is a great sign to look for in the ingredients list. With my allergic sensitivities, I do really well with Earth Balance.
By no means is this a comprehensive list of all cooking oils, but these are my quick and easy guidelines for healthy fats for my every day. I’d love to hear more thoughts, questions, and recommendations in the comment section, so share away!