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Cooking fats 101

How do you know which fat is best for sautéeing, and which is best for frying? Today I’m working on the cooking fats and oils chapter of ‘The Feast of the Dove.’ Knowing which cooking fats to use is both a skill and an art.

Olive oil is one of the essential cooking fats.

In my world, butter, olive oil and coconut oil are the Holy Trinity of culinary fats. With just those three, almost any dish I want to cook starts with a good beginning.

Choosing the right cooking fat begins with understanding “smoke point,” which is the temperature at which fats begin to burn. Butter has a relatively low smoke point. That’s why many recipes suggest a mix of butter and olive oil for sautéeing. In cooking, just regular olive oil is best — heat denatures the valuable compounds in extra-virgin oil.

Why I avoid vegetable oils

For the most part, I avoid vegetable oils — canola, corn, cottonseed and soybean — because I have several concerns about them. One is that these highly refined oils are often made with genetically modified crops. Another is that they’re all refined using a lot of chemical processes. Yet another is that vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fats — it’s an essential fatty acid, but we get too much in the Standard American Diet. Typically, however, our diets are too high in omega-6 fats, and too low in omega-3 fats. A diet high in omega-6 fats has been linked to inflammation in the body, which some scientists now think is the underpinning of almost all the diseases of contemporary society.

Best cooking fats for dishes served cold

Some oils are best for using without heat, as in salad dressings and dips or spreads. You can save the pricey extra-virgin olive oil for these applications. Or use the delicately flavored nut oils, such as walnut or pistachio, here.

If you avoid cooking fats from animals, lard, butter and ghee are off the menu for you. But you still have plenty of good choices, from avocado oil to coconut oil to nut oils.

Cooking fats and oils are a complex subject, however. There’ll be much more in this chapter of ‘The Feast of the Dove.’

Photo by Roberta Sorge on Unsplash

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