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Ask Kelly: Which Oil Should I Use?

Welcome back to Ask Kelly, a regular feature where our Director of Programs Kelly Lake answers all of your burning kitchen and cooking questions. Have a question you'd like Kelly to tackle? Email it to info@beechersfoundation.org.

Q: Which oil should I use when I cook?

A: It depends! Not helpful, I know, but what can I say – fats are complicated. Below I share my personal favorites for dressing, roasting, sautéing, and baking.

Some Background:
In our workshops, we talk about the amount of processing that goes into producing the vegetable oils that are found in most processed foods – soybean and canola oil, specifically. (If you want to see for yourself, you can watch this excerpt from the TV show “How It’s Made”.) This video often leaves participants wondering what oil they should use – and to be honest, I often struggle to give them a straight answer.

Why? Because there is no one perfect fat – just like there is no one perfect food or one perfect diet. The fats you choose to cook with in your kitchen all have their own selling points – some may work well with high heat, some may be higher in Omega 3 fatty acids (which are woefully lacking in our Standard American Diet), and others may have the flavor profile you’re going for. So while, alas, I can’t recommend one fat to rule them all, I would be happy to share some of my favorite fats and oils to have in the kitchen, and when to use them.

Salads and Sauces: Extra Virgin Olive Oil
When it comes to salad dressings or sauces, extra virgin olive oil is hard to beat. The flavor is delicious, it’s minimally processed (the “extra virgin” part means it is oil that is simply pressed from an olive without the use of heat or chemicals), and it is widely considered to be a healthy source of fat for humans. It’s also expensive – which is why I like to give it special treatment and use it when I can really appreciate its delicate flavor.

Sautéing: Coconut Oil, Ghee, Avocado Oil or Expeller Pressed Seed Oils
If you’re sautéing, you want something that can withstand high heat – don’t waste your delicate (and expensive!) olive oil here. Coconut oil and ghee are two minimally processed oils that will do the trick, but they are both solid at room temperature and impart their own flavor into the dish.  If you rely on those flavorless vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature, you can try less processed extra virgin avocado oil instead (it has an unusually high smoke point of over 500F). If the lower price point of vegetable oils is your priority, opt for an expeller pressed version of canola, soy, or safflower oil. Expeller pressed means the oil is processed without the use of extra heat and chemicals, leaving the more delicate unsaturated fat molecules less likely to have been oxidized (damaged) during processing. The trade off with these expeller pressed oils is that they are very high in Omega 6 fatty acids, which we eat too much of in our Standard American Diet, so best not to overdo it.

Roasting: Avocado Oil, Expeller Pressed Seed Oils (or – shh! – Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
When it comes to roasting veggies, you need an oil that is liquid at room temperature – which means we are back to avocado oil or expeller pressed seed oils. I will admit to you publicly that I do sometimes break my own rule about high heat cooking and roast with my extra virgin olive oil because I eat a lot of roasted vegetables and don’t want to eat a lot of canola, safflower, or soybean oil, and I don’t always have avocado oil on hand. The smoking point for extra virgin olive oil is as high as 425, and since my oil is only getting up to that temp at the very end of my 20 minute roast, I’m not as concerned here. (I’ve definitely burnt my olive oil sautéing in a hot pan – you can smell and taste the difference – hence omitting it from that category, but if you’ve been sauteing with extra virgin olive oil and it works, you do you!)

Baking: Butter, Coconut Oil, Lard
When it comes to baking, saturated fats typically make for velvetier, creamier, melt-in-your-mouthier textures.  Even in boxed brownie or cake mixes that call for vegetable oil, I use a 1:1 substitute of melted butter or coconut oil. And if you ever want to make really special pancakes or corn bread, try cutting in the butter – it results in an especially light and fluffy crumb since the melting fat leaves little air pockets as it cooks.

A note on imperfection:
You may have noticed that my rules aren’t very rigid – I want to emphasize (again!) that there is no one perfect oil and you should absolutely pick whatever works for you. Think of this as one person’s take on what oils work best, based on some research and a lot of trial and error. If you think I left out an important fat or oil, or if you have additional info, reach out at info@beechersfoundation.org – I’d love to hear from you!

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