Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Back To Basics: Fats & Oils

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

Low-heat cooking:

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


Cold-use only:

Sesame oil: best as finishing oil for flavor

Walnut oil: best as base for salad dressing

Source: Practical Paleo by Diane Sanfilippo;

It’s important to consider the source of your fats & oils, just like it’s important to consider the source of all the rest of your foods. When buying animal fats, make sure they come from grass-fed/pastured animals, are organic, and are unrefined. For tropical oils (coconut and palm kernel), buy organic and unrefined (except when needing the refined coconut oil for deep-frying or other high-heat cooking). Nut and seed oils should be cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, organic, and unrefined as well. Olive oil doesn’t have to be extra-virgin (for those of you who love the deep, rich, bitter flavor of pure olive oil), but it’s generally considered the gold standard as far as olive oil goes, and is much more versatile- pure olive oil used as salad dressing can overwhelm the flavor of everything else in the salad, but gives a deep dimension to Mediterranean dishes. Here are a few great sources of fats & oils:

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! 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.

Hopefully, you’ve got a bit of confidence in cooking with fats now, and start to go beyond the usual butter and olive oil. Let me know if you try something new; I’d love to hear how it comes out! Thanks for reading today, and Grok on!!! =)


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Think, Plan, Shop, Cook, Store, Repeat

A common concern that people have with going Paleo/Primal is how much time is spent shopping and cooking. I won’t lie; this is a pretty demanding way of living. But I can tell you also, truthfully, that it is ABSOLUTELY worth it. Even if you decide that Paleo’s not for you, moving from a diet of processed, packaged, pre-made foods to one of whole, fresh, real foods can be a bit jarring- if you don’t know where to start. This is where I come in: By giving you a basic plan and tips for efficient, successful planning, shopping, and cooking, you’ll be prepared to move from eating out of bags and boxes to preparing and enjoying your own fresh, healthy meals.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Humblest Apologies...

Hey y'all. I know I promised you a lot of awesome content, but LIFE happened over the last couple weeks, and when picking my battles among all of them, sadly the blog lost. I'll still be posting, just more sporadically and (hopefully) with shorter posts. I know, right? I'm all too aware of how long-winded I can be, believe me! =) Again, I will keep the content coming, but until I get a more solid schedule ironed out and have a better feel for how things are gonna go over the next few months, I'll only be writing twice a week. If I can. Hopefully, you'll keep checking in for the new content, and I will announce new posts on Facebook, so stay tuned for what I hope will be more good, solid content that you can use in your kitchen, and maybe even your life.

Thanks for listening, everyone. Keep on Grokkin!!!


Friday, August 9, 2013

Mount Vesuvius: Dish #4 in the Breakfast Series

Mornings are hectic, no doubt about it. But every so often, you get a few hours after rising to just… roll with it. Ya know? It’s mornings like those that I like to take my time with breakfast. I usually make banana muffins or coconut pancakes, simply because there’s a lot of time involved with making them, but sometimes I just want something hot and savory. Enter my semi-poached egg dish, Mount Vesuvius. Inspired by the volcano that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79, my Mount Vesuvius is a bed of Italian sausage, shredded zucchini, and oregano-spiked tomatoes topped with semi-poached eggs that “erupt” when you cut into them. Sweet, creamy egg yolk flows down the sides of the sausage “mountain,” hence its volcanic nomenclature. Big words, this early in the morning? AND a history lesson? Stop, it’s too much!!! Lol =P

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Basics: Eggs

Ah, the incredible, edible egg. Such a versatile little capsule of deliciousness. Crack one open, and the possibilities are practically endless. Boil ‘em, scramble ‘em, fry ‘em, poach ‘em… Yeah, I know. I sound like Bubba again. I’ll stop… for now. =)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Kitchen Safety

Last week, I covered what to keep in your kitchen as far as tools and staple foods. Well, that’s all fine and good, but if your kitchen’s an OSHA nightmare or a Hazmat zone, having all the right stuff isn’t going to make a difference. Today, I’d like to cover some basics of kitchen safety, particularly the stages before and after food is cooked. Though much of what follows is just common sense, not all of it is common knowledge. Take this stuff to heart, folks; it might mean your life or that of your loved ones…

Friday, August 2, 2013

Back to Basics: Broth & Stock

If you've ever wondered why restaurant soups & sauces taste so much better than most that are made at home, I got 1 word for you: stock. A lot of people don't understand the difference between broth and stock, and I don't really blame them. I didn't either, until I made some myself. The stock was soooooo much richer, and imparted an amazing flavor that I'd never been able to achieve using the canned broth I'd been buying from the store. The secret is in the bones and connective tissues; all that cartilage and bone marrow contain collagen, which turns into gelatin when heated... yeah, the stuff that Jello is made of? Beef bones. Betcha didn't see THAT coming. ;)