My Favourite Fats and Oils
My Favourite Fats and Oils
There are so many fats and oils available on the market, that it can be a bit mind-boggling choosing what to use! I get asked all the time “What oil do you use? Do you like butter or margarine?”
So I thought I’d do a blog post about what fats and oils are in my fridge and pantry and what I like to use/cook with and eat, and why. I have a strong preference for using certain fats and oils over others. My choices are based on a combination of my understanding and background in nutrition, what I like the taste of, what kind of cooking I do, but also just my plain common sense approach to healthy food, or what I call my ‘food instinct’. If you open my pantry or fridge door, this is what you’ll find when it comes to fats and oils:
EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL I love extra-virgin olive oil. It tastes great, is very high in monounsaturated fats (the healthy fats) and polyphenols (a type of antioxidant), and is minimally processed (a big tick from me!). I’m not sure if you have ever seen olive oil being made, but basically the gist of it is that the olives get crushed or pressed with a heavy clamp type thing, pressing out oil and pulped flesh. Then that mixture gets ‘centrifuged’ which is a process that separates mixtures of different densities (e.g fat and water or protein) by spinning it around in a high-speed apparatus. In this case it’s the pulp that gets separated from the oil. So all in all, it’s a pretty simplistic process. Ideally the oil should be ‘cold-pressed’ which means there is no heat required to press oil out of olives (because heat of course kills some of the heat-sensitive vitamins and causes some oxidation). The ‘extra-virgin’ part refers to it being the first press of the fruit that doesn’t require any chemicals or heating to extract further amounts of oil. The medium smoke point of extra-virgin olive oil means it is best suited for low and medium heat cooking, so I generally use it for cooking most things unless it is high heat cooking. I also love it for dressing salads or as a finishing oil to drizzle over food.
AVOCADO OIL This emerald green oil is not as well known or used as olive oil, however its health and culinary properties are just as impressive, maybe even more so. Like olive oil it’s pressed directly from the fruit (avocados are naturally about 30% oil), rather than being chemically extracted like many other plant oils. Again, it makes complete sense – all you do is press the avocados and it mushes it to a pulp containing oil, and then it is centrifuged to separate the two. It’s pretty much as simple as that. Again, cold-pressed avocado oil means no heat was needed to do this, retaining as much of its nutrition as possible. It is also made up predominantly of healthy monounsaturated fats, and high in vitamin E and antioxidants. What is quietly amazing about avocado oil is it’s naturally high smoke point. What this means is that it is suitable for high heat cooking (as well as low and medium heat cooking), so I use it for things like stir-fries or cooking steak when I want to get the pan really hot. With increased production of avocados, the price of avocado oil is coming down, and you can now get good quality avocado oil that is comparable in price to olive oil.
BUTTER Primarily, this is because I like the taste of butter, and the naturalist in me likes it because, like olive and avocado oil, its manufacturing process is pretty simplistic. It’s just made of cream and salt that just gets churned until it separates out the water from the fat and becomes butter! OK, now you’re thinking “but what about the saturated fat?” Yes, it’s true that butter is predominantly saturated fat, which has traditionally been coined ‘bad’ fat because it has been linked to raising blood cholesterol levels (a risk factor for heart disease). I don’t like labelling any food as ‘bad’, because to me as long as it’s real food (i.e. something that nature has produced, not a factory), then I believe it is fine to eat in moderation! So while it still stands that over-eating saturated fats could raise your blood cholesterol levels, our bodies actually need some saturated fat so you don’t need to cut it out completely from your diet! Remember to always look at the big picture and put things in context – if you are eating several tablespoons of butter a day then I’d probably suggest you cut back, but if you’re only having a few teaspoons a day (and you enjoy it) then I’d say that’s OK. If you’re worried about your cholesterol levels, you can always use avocado as a spread, or nut butters, or drizzle over olive or avocado oil – these are all healthy, natural alternatives that contain monounsaturated fats that are proven to lower cholesterol levels. While there are some margarines which are now much less processed than they used to be, there are still lots out there that freak me out when I read the labels which can consist of a cocktail of additives, so I personally don’t eat much margarine.
PEANUT OIL and SESAME OIL
I like the taste of these oils for my Asian cooking. However they do have a lower smoke point and can start to smoke and burn easily, so be careful with the heat you are cooking with when using them. Particularly with sesame oil, I just add at the end of cooking (and just a few drops because it has a strong flavour) for giving that characteristic Chinese flavour and many sure it isn’t at risk of burning.
This has got to be the most controversial oil/fat around. It has gained huge attention in recent times. My honest opinion is that there has been much more hype around it than warranted – common sense will tell you that it’s not a miracle cure for cancer, arthritis or any of those other health claims you might hear about it. It is a saturated fat, however the saturated fat contained in it is Lauric acid, which is a medium-chain fatty acid, and some credible studies have suggested it may be beneficial (having anti-bacterial properties and that even though it’s a saturated fat it may not have the same negative effects on cholesterol levels that other saturated fats do). It contains antioxidants, and I like the taste of it, hence I sometimes use it in my baking and occasionally to cook with (if I think the flavours go well). It is also a great dairy-free alternative to butter. Like with everything, it’s about moderation, so have some coconut oil if you like it but don’t go overboard and think it’s the only fat/oil you should be using (like some extremists would tell you!)
Here are some answers to other questions you might have:
What about the other cooking oils like rice bran, soybean and canola?
Personally I don’t use these oils much, as my food instinct doesn’t fully trust a product that requires so much processing and refining to make. Let me spin it this way – how on earth do you get oil out of rice bran?! It’s not naturally oily, that’s for sure. You need chemicals and a lot of different processing treatments to extract oil out of it, that’s how. Unlike olives and avocado, you don’t just simply press rice bran and oil comes out. Same goes with soy beans (which, by the way the majority of soybean crops are genetically modified) and rapeseed (what is used to make canola oil). While they are unsaturated fats, it is mostly omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids*, and in the Western diet we get far more omega-6 fatty acids than we actually need/should get (I don’t want to go into too much detail here as this is a whole other story, but basically you want a good balance of omega-3 to omega-6, and the modern Western diet is such that that balance is out of whack, shifting into an inflammatory, not very healthy balance).
*Canola is actually more MUFA than PUFA, but still contains a significant proportion of PUFA’s
What does smoke point mean?
The smoke point is the temperature at which the compounds in a fat or oil start becoming damaged due to heat and oxidation. You really don’t want this to happen because some of these damaged compounds can be toxic. So when cooking, your oil should never get so hot that it smokes and burns. So it’s not just a matter of choosing oils that are healthy, but also whether they stay healthy after being cooked with. This is why its important to choose an oil that’s suited to they type of cooking (low, medium or high heat) you are doing.
How do you limit oxidative damage to oils?
Oxidative damage is caused by heat (explained above), light and exposure to oxygen. Rancid oil (oil that has gone off tastes bad and is really bad for your health). So quite simply, to look after your oils, keep them in a cool, dark place and they should be in secure (preferably dark) bottles.
Thanks for reading, I hope that helps with your fats and oils shopping decisions. Please comment below with your feedback or any questions you may have. Nadia x
To be doing what I am today is a dream come true. It all started when I was 12 years old. I was watching TV after school one day and Jamie Oliver was cooking up a storm on The Naked Chef.