You can’t stay away from it – fat is a basic in cooking. Unless you want to spend you life eating steamed vegetables, you have to figure out what kind of fat to use and when.
Questions about cooking oils are probably the most common in my cooking classes. Everyone seems to be mystified by what is healthy, safe, and when to use what where. We are daily bombarded with the newest, greatest, healthiest, most sustainable oil out there. Just as often we are told, “what we told you yesterday was wrong, actually that oil you were using is awful for you.” You can find conflicting scientific information on just about every form of cooking fat, from Olive Oil to Margarine. How the hell are you supposed to tell which is best for you?
With so much contradictory information my general fall back is two things, (1) do what humans have been doing for a long time and (2) think about the quality of my ingredient.
(1) Humans have been cooking for about 2 million years, using olive oil for about the last 4,000 and cooking with lard since prehistoric times. These are just a few examples, but my point is: if it’s new (i.e. canola, vegetable oil, or crisco) I tend to stay away from it.
(2) Ok, so if people have been cooking with olive oil for a long, long time – it must be great to use. Well, yes, mostly. The problem with modern olive oil, especially after becoming EXTREMELY popular in this country over the last 20 years or so, is that it is ultra refined (using all kinds of gnarly chemicals), illegally cut with other questionable oils, and/or old and rancid. So, yes, the Romans stayed beautiful and smart and thin with the use of olive oil, but, no, it is not the same stuff you can buy in a 14oz green glass bottle on the shelf at your neighborhood Shop ‘n’ Mart. Doesn’t matter how “good” an oil/fat is for you if it is of terrible quality and stripped of it’s nutritional value.
The Basics of Cooking Fats
There are a few basic things that I think modern science has been able to pinpoint and this is information you can use wisely: the science of saturation.
Unsaturated fats, like olive, fish, flax, most nut, peanut, and sesame seed oils, are actually good for you and the functionings of your body. In moderation.
Saturated fats, this includes all animal fats, coconut, and palm oil, are being proven not to be “bad” for you, but not as good as the other stuff. Just like all things, in moderation.
Trans fats, the demon child of the scientific community and the fast food industry, includes anything hydrogenated. Hydrogenation is a process in which hydrogen is introduced to the heated fat to make it more stable and less likely to spoil. The most famous trans fat is margarine, but most trans fats are hidden in your processed or fast food – in the form of deep fryer oil or just about any added fat to processed frozen meals, boxed treats, or even your ice cream. (Learn how to spot them here.)
What I Use
Grapeseed Oil – this is one of my high heat, unsaturated fats I use for general cooking
Organic Peanut Oil – what I use for frying (mostly chicken)
Todd Geisert’s Lard – truly well sourced good fat, from the happy pigs at Todd’s farm in Washington, Missouri (it is FULL of Vitamin D)
Bacon Grease from Happy Pigs – I buy whatever free-range/pasture raised/no antibiotic/no hormone bacon I can get my hands on and then collect all the oil from the pan after cooking it, bacon grease is a wonderful and stable oil that sits in a jar by my stove and is virtually free
Organic Coconut Oil – generally I use this for my hair (I have dry curly hair) or for oil pulling, but I will find myself using it for a variety of reasons – from baking to searing to granola making
Organic Butter from Pastured Cows – it’s expensive, but butter is a luxury item and should be treated as such
I hope this helps shed a little light on this dark and confusing subject.