Last month in this space we provided a brief overview of the fats and oils used to prepare foods and what they mean to our bodies. This month we discuss the fun part — how to use them in everyday cooking.
First, determine which fat or oil is best suited for the intended use. Is the purpose of the fat to keep veggies from sticking in a sauté pan or will it provide the “flake” in a great pie crust? Second, decide which flavor is important. Will the fat or oil be central to the flavor of the dish, as in a cold dressing, or would you prefer that the fat add very little flavor to the dish in order to let other ingredients shine?
One basic way to categorize fats and oils to help determine their proper use is based on how, or if, the fat or oil is refined. Naturally refined cooking oils undergo a mechanical (as opposed to chemical) process that generally involves filtering and straining, or heat and pressure, to remove impurities and improve stability. Refined oils have fewer nutrients and less flavor than their unrefined cousins but they also have a higher smoke point and longer shelf life. Naturally refined oils such as safflower, sunflower and peanut are most commonly used for medium high (350-400 degrees) and high heat (400-495 degrees) cooking.
Other cooking oils are unrefined. These “whole” oils maintain their distinctive flavors and tend to have a higher nutritional value, deeper color and more pronounced fragrance. They also generally have a shorter shelf life and lower smoke point than refined oils. They are most commonly used for low (275-325 degrees) and medium heat (325-350 degrees) cooking and for cold applications such as salad dressings.
Cooking with fat involves heat and that is where the “smoke point” comes in to play. When an oil or fat begins to smoke, it starts to degrade and its flavor and nutritional value change. The exact smoke point of any given oil depends upon many factors such as how it was refined, age and storage conditions, so as a cook it is important to know when an oil is reaching its smoke point. In a sauté pan, oil is ready for cooking and just below the smoke point when ripples appear on the surface.
Cooking with fat and oil also involves flavor, since fats both have and carry flavor. Butter tastes rich and creamy, which is great for sauces and gravies. Unrefined extra virgin olive oil usually is bright and fruity, which is perfect for dressings and dipping. Extra-virgin coconut oil, with its heady smell and flavor, is great in curries while refined coconut oil has less flavor and is ideal for many baking applications.
Even with all this information, we are still amateurs. How do professional chefs think about and use fats and oils? For an answer, we asked Gabriel Schuenemann, chef and co-owner of The Alder Wood Bistro in Sequim. Gabriel began by telling us about rice bran oil, which the restaurant recently began using in place of peanut oil for all of its high-heat cooking applications. Rice bran oil is both less potentially allergenic than peanut (very important when cooking for others!) and flavor neutral, while maintaining a higher level of antioxidants and nutrients than many other refined oils. Gabriel also likes to use this oil in dressings, mixed with unrefined extra-virgin olive oil. He explained that since the essence of unrefined oils is so strong, using one-third unrefined and two-thirds “neutral” oil mixture ensures the flavor of the dressing doesn’t overwhelm the delicate flavor of the salad.
Gabriel’s other piece of advice is that, “People should not be afraid of pork fat.” Real lard, produced by rendering pork fat, provides the perfect “flake” in a pie or pastry crust and many people find it to be the very best oil for frying. Natural lard is even healthier than real butter, with about 20 percent less saturated fat and nearly double the amount of mono-unsaturated fat. Gabriel renders his own pork fat, which he is able to do because he worked with a local farmer to obtain this specialty product. The downside to this advice is that Gabriel uses real lard, which is hard to come by.
Unfortunately real lard went out of fashion after the Civil War when Proctor & Gamble decided to market cottonseed oil as Crisco using a new hydrogenation process that utilized toxic chemicals to produce oil in a solid form. Most industrial lard sold by grocery stores today is hydrogenated and full of trans-fats. Real lard is best obtained from a farmer who raises hogs and it still takes work to track down. The good news is that there are farmers on the peninsula who have begun to make “non-industrial” pork and pork products available to individual consumers, a trend we hope to see increase.
So the next time you’re pondering oil and fat at the grocery store, remember to avoid the hydrogenated choices and steer toward the unrefined and naturally refined options — your body can tell the difference. Until then, eat well and be well.
Mark Ozias and Lisa Boulware are owners of The Red Rooster Grocery. Reach them at columnists@sequim gazette.com.