Fats and Oils

By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography ©iStockphoto.com/ Robyn Mackenzie

Of all of Julia Child’s words of culinary wisdom, my favorite edict is perhaps: “Fat gives things flavor.” In her inimitable way, with one simple phrase, she waved away the low-fat decades of puritanical gastronomic deprivation. While we heartily agree and applaud the return of fat and flavor to cooking, her wisdom still leaves questions unanswered. 

Fat gives things flavor by carrying the flavor compounds of food to our taste receptors—allowing them to linger on the tongue in the most satisfying way and providing a luxurious texture or mouthfeel to foods. In addition, fat helps foods brown and caramelize, creates emulsions in dressings and sauces, transfers heat into the food we’re cooking, makes baked goods tender and flaky and delivers the fat-soluble vitamins A, E, D and K to our cells. But, now that we’ve embraced it, what kind of fat should we eat? How do we use the right fats and oils to get the most benefits from them?  

TYPES OF FATS

Scientists at the Mayo Clinic explain that fats and oils are either saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and mostly derived from animals (butter, lard), but are sometimes plant-derived (coconut and palm oils). Unsaturated fats are mostly derived from plants and come in three forms:

Monounsaturated fats come from nuts and seeds (olive, peanut and canola oils) and are liquid at room temperature.

Polyunsaturated fats are derived from vegetables, seeds or nuts (corn, safflower, sunflower, soybean, cottonseed and sesame oils) and are liquid at room temperature.

Trans fats
are produced when a liquid oil is transformed into a solid (margarine, shortening); doctors consider these fats the worst kind. Trans fats raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease.

Refined versus unrefined: According to the Livestrong Foundation, oils are refined to prolong their shelf life and raise their “smoke points” (the temperature at which oils give off smoke and begins the process of nutritional and flavor degradation). The refining process may reduce allergic reactions to some oils such as peanut oil, but unrefined oils typically have more pronounced flavors. In addition, the refining process often involves the use of chemicals and can remove some of the healthy compounds present in the oil. For example, refining removes the antioxidant polyphenols present in large quantities in coconut oil, lessening the potential benefits of reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

When choosing an oil or fat for cooking, it’s best to take into account how hot it’s going to get in the process. The Weston A. Price Foundation has conducted extensive research on how smoke point and rancidity affect the nutritional benefits and flavors of oils and fats, and has specific recommendations for the best oils to choose for different cooking needs. Heating an oil beyond its smoke point can lead to off-putting flavors, the release of unhealthy compounds and even fire.

For sautéing or pan-frying, the best bets are lards from grassfed, pastured animals (beef, pork, duck) or olive, coconut, grapeseed, palm, safflower, avocado and canola oils. For deep-frying, use lard or peanut, canola or grapeseed oils. The best oils for drizzling and for salads are those with more pronounced flavors and lower smoke points, such as olive, sesame, walnut, peanut and flaxseed oils. Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils are best avoided. Oils with high smoke points can always be used at lower temperatures, as well.

Fats and oils are best stored in a cool, dark area. Since both light and heat break down oils and cause rancidity, which affects both flavor and nutritional benefits, it is important to store properly and buy often.

Sources: The Weston A. Price Foundation, The Mayo Clinic, livestrong.com, webmd.com

BASIC VINAIGRETTE

In just about the time it takes to open a bottle of store-bought salad dressing, you can whip up your own from scratch. Your salads will be transformed.

1 shallot, minced
3 T. vinegar (sherry, Champagne, white balsamic,
red or white wine)
1 t. Dijon mustard
¹/³–½ c. olive oil

In a medium bowl, combine the shallot and vinegar. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes, then whisk in the Dijon mustard. Slowly trickle in the olive oil while whisking constantly until emulsified. Whisk in any additional herbs as desired.

BASIC AIOLI

Aioli, a rich and creamy garlic-laden mayonnaise-like sauce from the south of France, is a versatile accompaniment to vegetables, fish, meats, sandwiches and crudités.

2 cloves garlic, sliced
½ t. kosher salt
1 egg yolk
¼ c. grapeseed or other neutral oil
¼ c. extra-virgin olive oil
½ t. very cold water
1 t. lemon juice
Paprika, cayenne, black pepper, etc. (optional)

Place the garlic cloves and salt into a mortar and grind them into a paste with the pestle. Add the egg yolk and continue mashing and grinding until the egg and garlic are thoroughly combined. Combine the two oils and very slowly (drop by drop) dribble into the egg and garlic mixture while continuously mashing and grinding to emulsify. Once all of the oil is incorporated, add the water and lemon juice and stir to blend. Add seasonings. If the emulsion “breaks,” or separates, place an egg yolk in a stainless steel bowl and slowly (drop by drop) whisk in the broken aioli.

SWISS CHARD WITH COCONUT OIL,
GINGER AND CHILIES

The coconut oil provides a subtle sweetness in this Southeast Asian-inspired quick stir-fry.

1 large bunch Swiss chard
1 t. toasted sesame oil
2 T. coconut oil
1-in. piece fresh ginger, grated
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 t. soy sauce or tamari
1 t. sesame seeds, lightly toasted

Chop the chard, cutting the stems from the leaves and keeping them separate. Wash the leaves and stems separately in a colander and drain, allowing some water to cling to leaves. In a large skillet or wok, combine the sesame oil and coconut oil. When smoking hot, add the ginger and chili flakes and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Chop and add the chard stems and stir-fry for 1 minute—until they are beginning to get tender. Add the chard leaves, stir-fry for another few minutes, then cover and cook until they are wilted and tender. Remove the lid, stir in the soy sauce or tamari, sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

CITRUS OLIVE OIL CAKE

Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite

This cake is tender and moist, with a pronounced olive oil flavor that’s complemented by the citrus. It’s delicious with oranges, Ruby Red grapefruit or Meyer lemon.

2 oranges, zested and supremed (cut into segments
with peel, pith and seeds removed) and chopped
1 c. sugar
½ c. buttermilk
3 eggs
2/³ c. extra-virgin olive oil
1¾ c. all-purpose flour
1½ t. baking powder
¼ t. baking soda
¼ t. salt

Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a 9” x 5” loaf pan. In a medium bowl, combine the orange zest and sugar and, using your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until the sugar is orange and fragrant. Add the buttermilk, eggs and olive oil to the sugar and whisk to combine. In a larger bowl, combine the dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Fold the liquid ingredients into the dry, then fold in the chopped orange. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake 50 to 55 minutes—until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool on a rack to room temperature. The cake will keep, well wrapped, for several days.

OIL OR FAT

SMOKE POINT

BEST FOR

HEALTH BENEFITS*

Almond oil 420° salads high in vitamin E
and antioxidants
Avocado oil 375–400°,
520° **
salads,
frying,
sautéing
loaded with protein,
lecithin, beta-carotene and
vitamins A, D and E.
Butter 250–300° baking,
sautéing
high in omega-3s
when sourced from
grassfed animals;
cultured butter is
high in probiotics
Butter, clarified
(butter with milk
solids removed)
485° frying,
sautéing
rich in antioxidants,
aids in the absorption
of vitamins and minerals
Canola oil 375–400° ** frying,
sautéing
omega-3 fatty acids
can reduce risk of
heart disease; high in vitamin E
Coconut oil 350–450° ** baking,
frying,
sautéing
health benefits include
antimicrobial, antioxidant,
antifungal and antibacterial
properties; may aid in
brain function and in the
treatment of Alzheimer’s disease
Corn oil 450° frying,
sautéing
high level of polyunsaturated
fat can reduce risk of heart disease
Flaxseed oil 225° salads high in omega-3 fatty acids,
which reduce the risk of
heart disease, stroke and cancer,
and provide other health benefits
Grapeseed oil 420° baking,
frying,
salads,
sautéing
fights free-radicals, which
may strengthen the immune
system and reduce the
risk of developing cancer
Lard 370° baking,
frying
high in omega-3s when
sourced from grassfed animals;
also a good source of vitamin D
Olive oil,
extra-virgin
375° frying,
salads,
sautéing
rich in antioxidants
Peanut oil 320–450° ** baking,
frying,
sautéing
rich source of monounstaurated
fat, which can help to
lower cholesterol
Vegetable
shortening,
margarine
360–320–400° ** not
recommended
contain trans fats;
best avoided completely
Walnut oil 320–400° ** salads
rich in omega-3s,
vitamins B1, B2,
B3 (niacin), vitamin E