The many questions about cooking oils

Yesterday 500 guests joined me in my kitchen (the most I’ve ever had!) for my first live, online Kitchen Chat, and it was wonderful.

The topic was Fighting Cancer -- with Food! and we kind of went over a bit, and one hour stretched to an hour and a half... and I think we all could easily have stayed all afternoon, there’s just so much to discuss. And so many questions!

An area of tremendous interest, and rightly so, was healthy vs. unhealthy oils, which are which and why, and how to best cook with them.

We tend to know just enough to be… confused!

We know we don’t want to overheat oils. We anxiously keep an eye out for that smoke point... but is it safe to heat oils at all? All oils, or just some? And, er, which oils are healthy, again?

Here are my A’s to my kitchen guests Q’s.

Which are the healthy oils we may wish to include in our diets?
Good oils include olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and ghee (clarified butter), sometimes called “the royal oil.” If you love butter, ghee is a great choice, and responds very well to high heat.

Is it safe to heat oils?
Here’s the procedure: heat your pan first. When your pan is hot, add your oil and let it shimmer. That’s when you’re going to put your food in. At that point, the smoke point drops precipitously. To exceed the smoke point during this process, you would have to be working at a big, professional range with considerably higher heat than home models.  

Is it a good idea to include oils in our diet?
In order to obtain the fat soluble vitamins in dark leafy greens and brassicas, for example, we need to eat them WITH a bit of fat. So sauteing kale, for example, in olive oil is a way to be sure we glean the healthy nutrients.

If you were going to cook with any one oil, what would that be?
I’m an olive oil girl! It’s an ancient oil, I can trust it, and I love the nutritional profile of it. It’s at the core of the Mediterranean diet, which we know to be one of the healthiest diets in the world overall.

What kind of olive oil?
Extra virgin is the way to go. Save cold pressed as a finishing oil. I’m partial to California oils since I live here. But here’s a hint about buying oil, wherever you are: become a cherry picker! Reach way to the back of the supermarket shelf and get that LAST bottle. Usually stores stock the freshest bottles at the back, and in any case bottles in the back won’t have been exposed to a lot of light and heat.

Are there any healthy oils we shouldn’t heat?
Oils not to heat: flax, walnut -- any nut oil -- they are very delicate, what I call “finishing oils” -- to be used on a salad, mixed into a dressing, or drizzled on top of your vegetables.

Flax oil is truly very fragile, and can go rancid very easily. For that reason, I recommend you use ground flax seeds rather than the oil itself.

What about macadamia oil and sesame oil?
These are also great finishing oils. Just use a little bit of macadamia nut oil -- it’s super high in fat.

Peanut oil?
Not a big fan.

Safflower, sunflower, corn or soy oil?
Not at the top of my list. They’re more inflammatory and the ones you’re likely to find in the middle aisles with processed foods in the grocery store and in restaurants, where you don’t have control over the oils being used or the smoke point in the kitchen.

Are there any canola oils that are acceptable?
I’m not crazy about canola oil, which is used in a lot of baked goods and in restaurants. It’s made from rapeseed oil, highly processed, highly deodorized. A lot of chemicals are used in the processing. If you really MUST, I would choose Spectrum brand, organic. But if you are just looking for something neutral tasting, I would gravitate towards avocado or grapeseed oil, which are cleaner. And, surprise surprise, I’ve had great results using olive oil in baking! Very delicious results of my experimenting can be found in my Recipe Box.

What’s the big deal about smoke points? And how high can the oil temperature get before it starts smoking?
All those hydrogen bonds that create the fat start to break. For example, the heat point on olive oil is 350 degrees. You can heat it up to that point before it starts to break down. As I mentioned, the moment you add food to your pan, you instantly lower that smoke point. Maybe you’ve heated it to 325 degrees. When you add your onions, you lower it to 275, and when you throw in your greens it lowers a little more.

What about oil temperatures during roasting?
Roasting at 400 degrees? No problem. It’s indirect heat, so the oil isn’t being heated to that high a temperature.

High jinks in my kitchen after the event today. My team & I are happy & jazzed!