Best Cooking Fats
Choosing a cooking fat can be a complex process. Once, we used whatever we had on hand. Now, we have so many choices to consider!
Traditionally, people used animal fats in colder climates. Those fats have been demonized by studies and marketing. They aren’t as nutritious as they used to be because of how we raise those animals.
We cook differently than we used to. New cuisines are popular, and they may use different fats in their recipes.
Historical food wisdom has been lost as science and corporations have tried to tell us the right way to eat. Corporations want us to eat cheap fats, and sometimes science has been manipulated by their interests.
The fat-free craze of the 90s, the ideas that saturated fat might not be as bad as we thought, and the highly processed fats available for sale can make anyone confused as to what is best. Or even if it matters.
I like to go with more natural fats where I can. I don’t believe that highly processed fats and oils are the best option for us, though the fact that they are more shelf stable does make them useful.
There are a lot of cooking fats to choose from, and a lot of different studies that tell you which is best. I researched how oils are refined, what smoke points are, and a bit about fatty acids to hopefully give some direction on what cooking fats are best for your health.
Types of Cooking Fats
There are many types of cooking fats on the market today. We can find vegetable and animal fats. There are cold pressed oils and highly processed and refined oils.
Different cooking fats have different properties. Some are liquid at room temperature, others solid. Some are highly stable. Some will degrade with cooking and are best used for salad dressings and unheated sauces. Some have more flavor and others have a more neutral taste.
The most common vegetable cooking fats you will find include avocado, canola, coconut, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, nut, palm, peanut, olive, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. You can find cold pressed oils among these, but most of them are extracted using heat and chemical solvents.
Standard “vegetable oil” usually includes a mix of canola, corn, palm, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils. They use whatever is cheapest at the time, and use highly refined oils.
Common animal cooking fats include butter (and ghee), lard, and tallow. Butter is readily available at stores, but lard and tallow, if you find them, are often adulterated to make them shelf stable.
Ghee is butter with the solids removed. You can make ghee at home, or buy it ready made. Because ghee is clarified, it is shelf stable.
Choosing the best cooking fat for you means comparing prices, recipes, smoke points, fatty acids, and amount of processing. I prefer fats that are minimally processed, but they usually aren’t as shelf stable, cost more, and can be hard to find.
The only cooking fats you are likely to find at the farmers market include olive oils, lard, tallow, and butter. All are minimally processed (and lard and tallow may need to be refined at home).
Oils that have been highly processed may not be terrible for you, but they lack nutrients. They may already be rancid due to the heat processing. They are shelf stable, and have a neutral flavor.
Animal cooking fats are more nutritious if they are grass fed or pastured animals.
Refined Cooking Fats
Most processed foods you can buy use some type of refined cooking fat in their recipes. Refined fats are cheaper and more shelf stable.
Unrefined oils are pressed out of a seed. They are not heated, usually have a flavor to them, and are not very shelf stable. They also contain antioxidants and vitamins that have been removed from refined oils.
The majority of cooking oils in the US are made of soybean, corn, canola, and palm oils. Most of these have been refined, bleached, and deodorized.
Refining an edible oil is a complex process that removes undesirable tastes, smells, and colors. During chemical refining, most of the nutrients are removed as well.
A cold pressed olive oil is made with ground up olives, mechanically pressed, to make an extra virgin olive oil. A refined olive oil may have been filtered, chemically treated, or otherwise refined.
Refined cooking fats are often heated in the refining process. Different chemicals are used. Much like fresh whole wheat flour versus white flour, the oil may be neutral and shelf stable, but it is missing much of the nutrition that was in the seed to start with.
In addition, over 90% of corn, canola, and soybeans in the US are genetically engineered crops. GMOs often mean more pesticides can be used because the crop is resistant to them. It also means the crops are grown in a monoculture, which is not good for the soil or wildlife.
Refined cooking oils usually come from GMO crops, and nutrition has been removed to make the oil more palatable and shelf stable. Choosing an unrefined oil or fat is a better choice for health, though refined oils last longer and can withstand higher heat.
Unrefined cooking oils are more expensive, often because shelf life is shorter. When buying unrefined oils, you must buy from a trusted source, as more expensive products are often adulterated with cheaper products.
Smoke Points of Cooking Fats
Pay attention to smoke points when choosing a cooking fat. A smoke point is where an oil or fat goes from shimmering in the pan to smoking. That smoking means the oil is burning.
A smoking fat means the fat is breaking down. It can cause disagreeable flavors, and also mean that harmful byproducts are being created.
Usually, an unrefined oil will have a lower smoke point. Refined oils are better for higher heat cooking. Some unrefined oils have such low smoke points that they are not recommended for cooking at all, and are better suited to salad dressings or dipping.
For example, butter has a smoke point of 350F. It is full of milk solids that burn at that temperature. Ghee, which is butter with the solids removed, has a smoke point of 450F. An unrefined oil has more things in it that can burn at a lower temperature.
When you are sauteing food, olive oil, butter, and other medium smoke point oils work well. It’s when you want to sear meats or cook in a super hot wok that you’ll want to look towards higher smoke point oils.
Even if you don’t want to use refined oils regularly, keeping some on hand for higher heat cooking applications is good. Searing needs at least a 400F smoke point, and wok cooking is good with 450F. Homemade ghee could meet these applications if you want to avoid chemically refined oils.
For baked goods, temperatures don’t reach as high. Fats like olive oil and butter, at 350F smoke point, are good for use in baking.
Saturated and Unsaturated Cooking Fats
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and unsaturated fats are liquid. Saturated fats are more stable, and less easily damaged by light, heat and air. They don’t go bad as fast.
Oils are mostly unsaturated fats, while lard, tallow, butter, and palm and coconut oil have more saturated fats. Most fats have a mix of saturated and unsaturated, and those unsaturated fats can be further classified as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Whether a fat is saturated, mono or poly is a matter of how many molecular bonds they have. Monounsaturated has one bond. Polyunsaturated has two to six bonds. Saturated fats have none.
Monounsaturated fats include olive oil, avocado oil, nut and seed oils. Polyunsaturated fats include canola, safflower, soybean, cottonseed, and corn oils.
We also have trans fats. Trans fats occur naturally in animal fats, but those aren’t a cause for concern. Trans fats that are artificially created by changing unsaturated fats into room temperature solid fats are terrible for your health.
A food can be labeled free of trans fats if there is less than 0.5g per serving. That means the more servings you eat, the more trans fats you may be consuming.
Our bodies make monounsaturated fats. We don’t make polyunsaturated fats, and must get them from our diet. That doesn’t mean you need lots of processed oils in your cooking, rather that polyunsaturated fats come from many sources. After all, people got those oils before highly processed oils were developed.
Polyunsaturated Cooking Fats
There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats. These are called omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, and they need to come from our diet. Though we need both, our modern diet is very high in omega 6s. We usually don’t get enough omega 3 fats to balance it out.
Omega 3 fatty acids can be further classified as EPA, ALA, and DHA. EPA may help with depression. DHA helps with brain function. ALA can convert to EPA and DHA (though poorly), and helps the heart and immune system.
When you eat too high of a ratio of omega 6s to 3s, you may end up with inflammation and chronic disease. The best ratio of 6s to 3s is between 1:1 and 4:1. The western diet usually falls in between 15:1 and 17:1.
The current recommendation for omega 3s is to eat oily fish twice a week. You might also want to look at your cooking fat ratios if you are concerned about getting the right amounts of omega 3s in your diet.
Rather than eating more omega 3 fats, it is best to balance out ratios. Soybean oil is considered to have more omega 3, but it also has nearly seven times the omega 6. Canola oil has a ratio of 2:1. Flaxseed oil is 1:3, but the 3s are mostly ALA, not DHA or EPA.
Other fats, like butter, lard, and coconut oil are very low in omega 6s and omega 3s, and have good ratios of omega 6 to omega 3. Sunflower, corn and cottonseed oil have tiny amounts of omega 3s but massive amounts of omega 6s.
Historically, animal products were high in omega 3 fats. However, most animals today are fed diets of grain, and have less omega 3s. A reason fish is so promoted as omega 3 rich is that wild caught seafood eats a natural diet.
In fact, studies show that grass fed beef has a better fat ratio than grain fed beef. Other studies show pigs have better ratios as well when fed a grain free diet.
Grass fed butter is also more nutritious and has more omega 3s, along with healthier versions of omega 6s.
When choosing a cooking fat based on fatty acid ratios, animal fats raised with more natural diets are a good choice. Canola oil, even though it is highly processed, has a favorable ratio as well. Olive oil and coconut oil are also low in omega 6s.
Choosing sustainably raised meat and avoiding most processed foods and oils will also help optimize your omega fatty acid ratios.
However, animal fats come with saturated fats. These fats have been demonized over the years, but we are coming to understand they aren’t as bad as we were told.
The research on saturated fat so far is mixed, however. Clearly human nutrition is much more nuanced than we realized, and changing historical eating patterns has not done us any favors.
Eating unprocessed monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, is a good choice. Balance that out with sustainably raised meat, but also lots of vegetables and unprocessed foods.
The Best Cooking Fats
I believe the best cooking fats are the ones that are minimally processed. I like to cook with butter and lard and olive oil. I keep canola oil on hand because the rare times I fry something, canola will work. Plus if I’m frying food, I’m definitely indulging myself anyway.
Canola oil, though highly processed, also has a better ratio of fatty acids than other processed oils out there.
My lard comes from the farmers market, and I render it myself. Lard is hard to find at the grocery, and often has been changed to be shelf stable.
Coconut oil is popular right now, and can be purchased refined or unrefined. It has no omega 3s, but is very low in 6s. Like animal fats, it is very high in saturated fat.
There are a lot of conflicting studies out there about what fats are best. There are a lot of claims about how one fat is terrible for some reason, not all based in fact.
Based on my research, I plan to stick with minimally processed fats as much as possible. Understanding more about omega ratios makes me want to skew towards canola on the rare chance I want an oil rather than butter or lard.
Ultimately, our population has been getting heavier and less healthy for a long time now. You find people claiming no fat diets improve health, with others claiming lots of fat is the answer.
I’d rather stick with a diet that is less processed, and more local!