Ah, that big, scary word: FAT. We’ve been told all our lives that we should stay away from it because it’ll make us fat. I’ll save that fiction for another post, but what I would like to cover today is what are the best fats & oils to cook with, how to select them, and how to store them.
I think I need to give you a bit of a disclaimer here: I’m admittedly biased against seed & vegetable oils thanks to my Paleo/Primal choices, but I’d probably avoid them on principle alone even if I wasn’t Primal. Most seed & vegetable oils are made with GMO crops, especially soybean oil. Not only that, but the extreme processing that these oils have to go through just to be “consumable” (which does NOT mean they SHOULD be consumed, it just means they CAN be consumed without killing you, at least not immediately) should be a giant red flag on your ‘do not eat this’ radar. Add to that the extreme instability of most seed & vegetable oils combined with their high omega-6 content and you’ve got a recipe for both health and culinary disaster. I recommend avoiding these oils like the plague, and anything made with them. But just so you know, adopting a Paleo/Primal way of eating knocks these oils out of your diet by default, so… Just sayin’. =)
Disclaimer over. On to the topic at hand!
Fortunately, I can’t get into a discussion about fats & oils without disclosing a little bit of chemistry (and I say fortunately because you know how much I love food science!). As you probably know, there are three types of fats & oils: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated. There are different levels of each of these as well, which I won’t get into, but you can do more digging here if you want to (fair warning; it’s all science-y!), or here and here for layman’s terms on the chemical composition of fats. What you need to be concerned with for the purposes of this post is how each of these are affected by air, light, and heat; in other words, how quickly and to what degree they burn and oxidize, breaking down in nutritional profile and giving your food a bitter taste.
Oh, almost as an aside: The basic difference between fats & oils is that fats are solid at room temperature, whereas oils are liquid at room temperature. All oils are fats, but not all fats are oils. Get it? This only really matters on a chemical level, but since we’re getting into a bit of chemistry here, it’s kind of important to know. =)
Two things you need to know before you dive into cooking with fats: smoke point and stability. Smoke point is the temperature at which a fat or oil starts to smoke when heated. I know what you’re thinking: well, duh, Megan. Could you spare me the obvious explanation? And spare you I shall! Fats smoke at a certain temperature point because of their chemical composition, and if you’re unaware of the chemical composition of the fat you’ve chosen to cook with, you could end up with a charred, bitter mess of greens or a soggy, limp piece of meat. Certain dishes require a certain type of fat purely because of the smoke point. For example, you want a fat with a high smoke point for frying so as not to burn the fat before the food is cooked properly. Choosing your fats wisely also matters for texture: Animal fats usually lend a lighter, drier, crispier texture to fried foods than vegetable oils, which usually leave some sogginess behind.
The stability of fats & oils refers to the speed and degree to which they become oxidized. This can happen both when heated and when being stored, which I’ll address a little later. Oxidation happens only in unsaturated fats (so most animal fats and tropical oils don’t count), but it’s important to know how and how long to store your fats to prevent oxidization and rancidity. More on that in a bit…
When selecting a fat to cook with, consider not just the method and temperature at which you’re cooking; think also about the end product, namely taste and texture.
Below, you’ll find the best fats & oils for culinary purposes, and the methods and temperatures for cooking with them. You can use multiple fats in a single dish, too. For example, if you’re cooking an Asian dish, you could stir-fry the meat & veggies in coconut oil due to its high heat tolerance, and finish with toasted sesame oil for that distinctive stir-fry flavor.
High-heat cooking (based on stability):
Coconut oil: best for stir-frys, sautés, frying, and high-heat roasting; smoke point: 350 degrees unrefined, 450 degrees refined
Butter: best for sautés and roasting; smoke point: 300 degrees
Tallow/suet (beef fat): best for frying, roasting, and broiling; smoke point: 400 degrees
Palm kernel oil: best for frying, high-heat roasting, broiling, and stir-frys; smoke point: 455 degrees
Lard/bacon fat: best for pan frying, sautéing, and roasting; smoke point: 375 degrees
Duck fat: best for pan frying, sautés, and roasting; smoke point: 375 degrees
Avocado oil: best as finishing oil for flavor or as base for salad dressing; smoke point: 520 degrees
Macadamia oil: best as finishing oil for flavor or as base for salad dressing; smoke point: 410 degrees
Olive oil: best for low-heat sautés, light roasting, and as base for salad dressing; smoke point: 375 degrees
Sesame oil: best as finishing oil for flavor
Walnut oil: best as base for salad dressing
Source: Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo; www.balancedbites.com
Tropical Traditions - Considered the best as far as coconut oil goes. They also carry olive oil, palm oil, and sesame oil.US Wellness Meats - This Internet gem of all things animal carries tallow, suet, lard, and duck fat, and they sell Kerrygold Butter through the site if you don’t have a store nearby that does. As you can imagine, they also sell just about every type of meat, poultry, and fish- all sustainably sourced, all pastured/grass-fed/wild-caught- that you can imagine, so keep this source handy for all your animal food needs!
Amazon.com also has a great selection of other fats and fat-related products (such as creamed coconut and almond butter). You can also get olive oils, palm kernel oil, coconut oil, ghee, and a big selection of animal fats. Just be sure to source everything you see on Amazon; you may not be getting what you’re paying for. Always go to the source and read reviews before ordering through Amazon.
Storing fats is a fairly simple matter: keep oils in a cool, dark place or in the fridge in dark-colored glass or opaque bottles/jars, and keep saturated fats in a cool, dark place in airtight containers, or in the fridge if you’re storing them for long periods of time. Remember how I said earlier that fats are affected by air, heat, and light? As long as you keep them tightly sealed, out of direct light, and away from extreme temperature shifts, you should be doing fine. This chart is a pretty good guide for storing just about any fat you’ll use.