Fat. The building block of cooking and flavor.

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

 

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coconut oil

 

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bacon grease

 

I hope this helps shed a little light on this dark and confusing subject.

oiling your wood.

One thing life has taught me, is that some things really are made to last – and there are definitely some kitchen equipment I plan to have for my lifetime. Our throw-away culture is destroying our minds into thinking that most of what we have is disposable. So treat it rough, with American panache, and then dump it in the trash.

Well, I’m here to tell you that your things – with a little cultivation – can remain functional for a long, long time. In specific, you wooden equipment will smile at you if you follow two simple rules: do not soak and oil regularly.

Below I have included pictures of my sadly neglected wooden cutting boards and spoons that I loved up on and oiled on one side, to show you the contrast.
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The hows and whys.

Why wood? First of all, I prefer wooden equipment for many reasons – some of which are: they are aesthetically pleasing, they feel best to the touch, unlike plastic they don’t leach nasty chemicals and they don’t give bacteria a happy home to breed, they are easier on your pans and knives (respectively), they are heat resistant, and they last a long time.

Why oiling? Wood is natural substance that dries over time. When wood dries it shrinks (that is why your cutting boards will pull apart at the seams) and becomes brittle. Heating wood and washing it with soap further dries it out. Regular oiling with proper food-grade oil keeps your wood soft, which keeps it from cracking, warping, splitting, or splintering – and they will also retain their color longer.

How to clean your wood. Soap is fine, some people like bleach – but I think it is unnecessary (see link above about wood’s natural anti-bacterial properties), but never place wooden items in dishwasher (too much water and heat) or leave soaking (this will cause your equipment to soak up water and expand, leading to cracking and warping).

What kind of oil? You want to use a food-grade oil that is not prone to rancidity. Olive oil does not work, because it will go rancid quickly (if it’s not already, check out how gross olive oil can be). Use mineral oil, a mixture of mineral oil and beeswax, or you can buy a pre-prepared oil in a bottle just for the occasion (pictured below).

How to oil your wood. Now that your wooden spoon/cutting board is clean and dry, rub oil on generously with a soft cloth and leave to soak in for up to 24 hours. Then wipe off with a clean cloth and you’re done! Simple as that. Repeat once a month.

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unoiled side

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a generous greasing, waiting to be wiped off

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after oiling

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For some great heritage made spoons - check out my friend James Blackwood at Pretty Good Mules!

For some great heritage made spoons – check out my friend James Blackwood at Pretty Good Mules!

 

Ans a little wood wisdom from James:

Wood will expand and contract as it absorbs and gives off water. Unfortunately, it does that much better at the surface (especially the end grain) than on the inside and all that movement over an unchanging interior will cause cracks and fissures. Adding an oil or oil/wax finish helps stabilize the moisture content of the wood in the face of all the hydrological vagaries of a kitchen.

Mineral oil and the butcher block conditioner you indicate are good options for treating wooden items. It’s a bit more expensive, but for most things I’ve gone to using flax seed oil. It is a hardening oil which will slowly build up a finish as it oxidizes. This is a very slow process, a single application of oil not wiped from the object may take up to 6 months to dry fully, so just keep applying it as you mention in the article. Wipe it on. Give it a few hours or a day to rest and then wipe away the excess. Slowly it will build up a more durable finish. Another option is walnut oil, but I’ve seen some quibbling over nut allergies sensitivity and I don’t want to take the chance, though I personally know folks that swear by it.