Long gone are the days of inhaling Snackwells cookies as you pine away for a slice of real Devil's food cake. Fat-free cottage cheese? See ya never. And margarine... just no. In today's culinary—and nutrition—world, it's all about cooking and baking with healthy fats.
After years and years of praising low-fat foods, we've finally come back around to the idea that healthy fats aren’t as bad as we thought. So those of you who've eschewed oils and butter for decades, rejoice! It’s time to get cooking.
If you’ve ever watched Top Chef, you’ve seen professional chefs douse their pans in oil and butter before cooking everything from spinach to monkfish. Why? Because fat tastes good. Plus, a little bit of oil in your pan also keeps food from burning and keeps food from drying out during cooking. Safe to say, fat is essential for even the most amatuer chefs.
When it comes to health benefits, lipids give you more energy, keep you fuller for longer after you eat, and can contain omega-3 fatty acids. And depending on the source you use, the food you cook in oil can become more healthy or can become totally toxic.
Cooking oils and fats all have a smoke point—the point where the components of the fat break down and start to oxidize, or become rancid. And rancid oil is inedible and toxic to the body, creating harmful cancer-causing chemicals like acrolein (one of the deadliest ingredients in cigarettes) and converting good cholesterol into bad cholesterol, which leads to heart disease.
The easiest way to avoid oxidization of oils and fats? Pick something with a high smoke point and with few polyunsaturated acids. If you’re heating oil for frying or cooking, a more stable oil, or an oil with more saturated fats, will be able to stand up to heat better and therefore won’t oxidize as easily. Avoid cooking with peanut, corn, grape seed, sunflower, and canola oils, as they’re very processed and have even been linked to cancer and heart disease.
Never fear—these five healthy cooking fats are the way to go.
Coconut oil is the MVP of all oils, because you can use it in your hair, on your skin, and in your food. It has a particularly high amount of saturated fat, which is why it's solid at room temperature, and why it has a high smoke point. This makes coconut oil a perfect option for all of your high heat cooking like frying and sautéing. Plus, this medium chain triglyceride has lots of health benefits, so as soon as you add it into your meal you're increasing the energy and nutrition of your food.
Ghee is a version of butter that's most popular in Indian cuisine, but as we've learned of it's benefits, many more Americans are substituting their canola oil for this clarified version of butter. The milk solids have been removed from ghee, making it more stable and able to withstand a higher heat than regular butter. It's also contains less lactose than butter, so it won't affect those with lactose intolerance like most dairy does. Ghee is best for cooking at medium-high heat.
Lard has been vilified for far too long, but it's finally making a comeback, especially among Paleo eaters. Made from animal fat, lard has 25 percent less saturated fat than butter and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for their anti-inflammatory properties.
As more information became available in the 1990s about how unhealthy vegetable oil can be, olive oil became the "healthy" oil of choice. However, olive oil has a low smoke point, so technically it isn't ideal for cooking. Stick to using olive oil at room temperature in salads and drizzled over food for taste, because olive oil has incredible nutritional properties. Just make sure you grab the extra virgin olive oil, which is the product of first pressing of olives, because regular olive oils can contain fillers like canola oil.
Instead of olive oil, cook with avocado oil. It can withstand very high heat and it has a neutral taste, which makes it perfect for frying and cooking in a skillet. Try it in salads and drizzled over veggies, too!
Experiment with these cooking oil options to create the most healthy and flavorful meals ever. Bon apettit!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho