The Skinny on Fat- The Difference Between Good and Bad Fats
Coconut oil has been super popular in the culinary world in recent years and it doesn’t look like this trendy ingredient is going away any time soon. People are using coconut oil for everything like baking and sautéing and even putting it in their coffee (which by the way is delicious and you should totally try it) I started to wonder about the different oils that we use in the kitchen and how to know which ones are best for certain recipes. There are so many different kinds of oils to choose from. Which ones should you use for baking? For frying? What will taste best in your pie recipe? I even heard that if you use the wrong kind of oil for the wrong culinary purpose you could be risking your health! I decided to dig into the world of fats and oils and see if I could come up some guidelines about the best oils to use when and where.
Before we begin. It’s worth noting that fat and oil are the same thing. Oil is a liquid and fat is a solid. There are many different types of fats, some of them are good and some of them are bad. Even though our Western culture gives fats a bad rep they are actually vital to our health. Our brain is made up mostly of fats and fats make up the cell membranes that protect the integrity of our cells and their structure. Fats and oils play crucial roles in stabilizing blood sugar levels, providing raw materials for making hormones and contributing to a healthy immune system. Fats are calorie rich foods which is why we should be mindful about our consumption, but understand that we cannot completely cut them out of our diet. We need fats to stay healthy. My toddler loves to eat straight butter. I was concerned about this at first but then I read how important fat is for the brain development of toddlers and young children so now I let her eat butter by the spoonful. I think it’s gross but her intuition to eat fat is natural and helps her brain grow big and healthy.
Let’s start with a little information about the different kinds of fatty acids
Triglycerides are the chemical form of fats in food and in the body and they consist of a mixture of three fatty acids. Saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated plus one glycerol molecule. A particle of fat is defined by the combination of fatty acids that make it up. Olive oil has more monounsaturated acids than it does saturated or polyunsaturated fatty acids, therefore making it a monounsaturated fat. All three fats have advantages and disadvantages for health and flavor.
Monounsaturated fats are considered the heart-healthy good fats. They maintain good HDL cholesterol levels while lowering the bad LDL cholesterol levels. They are more chemically stable than polyunsaturated fat but not as stable as saturated fat. This means they keep better than polyunsaturated oils but not better than saturated oils. They are great for light cooking and for use in salad dressings.
Examples: Olive, avocado, peanut, sesame, lard and duck fat.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids are more susceptible to rancidity than saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids due to their unstable chemical structure, especially after prolonged exposure to oxygen, light or heat. They are liquid at room temperature. Polyunsaturated oils aren’t usually recommended for cooking because they are easily damaged by heat. They are best used in their raw form and should never be kept longer than their expiration date. Polyunsaturated fats should be stored in dark bottles in the refrigerator.
Examples: Walnut, grapeseed, soy, corn, and fish oil.
Saturated fats are the most chemically stable. They have a long shelf life and the ability to withstand high cooking temperatures. They are usually solid at room temperature. Saturated Fats are primarily found in animal fats and tropical oils like coconut or palm kernel oil. Animal fats can fall under several categories. In general animal fats like butter and cream are predominately saturated fats however coconut oil and palm kernel oil come from vegetables. Animal fats like lard, chicken and duck fat are predominately monounsaturated while fish oils are predominately polyunsaturated. Eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, also contain primarily saturated fats, but do not contain cholesterol (yay, keep that coconut oil coming!)
Trans fats are the worst kind of fat. They are fatty acids that have been chemically altered and are found in partially hydrogenated oils. The hydrogenation process injects hydrogen into vegetable fats under high heat and pressure. It saturates what was formally an unsaturated fat and results in a chemical configuration that is not found in nature and very rich in trans fatty acids. This is done to make vegetable oils which are normally liquid at room temperature, solid and more chemically stable therefore extending the shelf life of products in which they are used. Very small amounts of trans fats occur in nature in foods such as milk, cheese and butter beef and lamb. Trans fats are twice as harmful because they lower the HDL cholesterol and raise the LDL cholesterol levels increasing the risk of heart disease. Trans fatty acids have a worse impact than diets high in butter which contain saturated fat. Trans fats are found in foods like donuts, biscuits, frozen pizza and just about every other fatty, processed food you can imagine.
So, what are the best oils to use in your recipe?
Baking: Coconut, palm, canola, safflower and sunflower oil work best
Frying: Avocado, peanut, palm and sesame oil work best because they can stand up to high heat
Sautéing: Avocado, canola, coconut, grapeseed, olive, sesame, safflower and sunflower oils
Dips, Dressings and Marinades: Flax, olive, peanut, toasted sesame or walnut oil
How to Store Oil
Heat and light can damage oils, particularly unsaturated ones so keep them in the refrigerator to avoid rancidity. You will know it’s gone bad if it tastes and smells bad. Some oils become cloudy or solidified when stored in the fridge. Not to worry, it doesn’t affect their quality. A few minutes at room temperature and they will be back to normal
What is a Smoke Point and Why Should I Care?
Heating oils beyond their smoke point will generate smoke and toxic fumes. Every oil has smoke point, the temperature where the oil starts to break down and release free radicals. Always discard oil that has been heated beyond its smoke point and anything it has come into contact with. Most labels on the jar of oil will give you the smoke point temperature.
Refined or Unrefined? That is the Question
Refined oils are oils that are refined to make them more stable and suitable for high temperature cooking. Refining removes most of the flavor, color and nutrients, it also raises the smoke point. They are perfect for baking and stir-frying. High smoke point and neutral flavors.
Unrefined oil is simply pressed and put into a bottle so it retains its original nutrient content flavor and color like extra virgin olive oil. Unrefined oils add full bodied flavors to dishes and are best used for no or low heat applications.