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Feeding ourselves should be one of the least complicated tasks we perform during the day, yet in 2016 food has become one incredibly complicated subject.
Friend, I believe real food is the answer that our nutritionally-void-grab-at-any-health-fad culture desperately needs. We need to return to the days when food was simple, when food came from the ground or the animal that walked the ground. Food that was then prepared in home kitchens with lots of love and patience, or purchased from a well-trusted source. That’s the kind of real food I’m referring to. Health fads come and go, but real food transcends generations.
Since I believe so much in getting back to real food, and I know you believe in that, too, we spend a lot of our time together cooking and making meals, along with diving deeper into the age-old food wisdom of Great-Grandma. Last year, we talked about real food sweeteners. Last month, we talked about real food flours. Today, let’s chat about real food oils and fats.
There are many different oils and fats in the average American grocery store today. Have you seen the butter section recently? There’s butter and then there’s butter with added oils, and “heart healthy” this and that. Talk about confusing! Today, I’m not going to talk about all of the oil and fat options in the grocery store; rather, I’m just going to share my top oil and fat picks. The oils and fats that I believe are the best multi-purpose real food options for cooking and baking.
Just a quick note before we proceed. You’ll notice throughout our discussion that I reference the term smoke point. This term is used to help provide a reference to how to use the fat or oil. According to the lovely Wikipedia, “The smoke point indicates the temperature limit up to which that cooking oil can be used.” Keep the smoke point of an oil or fat in mind as you think about how to use it in your kitchen.
Real Food Oils and Cooking Fats 101: My Top Real Food Picks
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
My favorite oil to use in my kitchen is extra virgin olive oil. The majority of the time I purchase my olive oil in large tins from Whole Foods, our local health food store, or Trader Joes.
Olive oil is a cold-pressed oil, made from the olive tree, that’s rich in monounsaturated fatty acids. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point, 325-375F/160C, than the other oils and fats we’re going to talk about. Reaching the smoke point of olive oil is difficult unless you’re going to leave the oil in a skillet for an extended period of time (AKA: forgetting about the skillet on the stove-top…I don’t recommend that!), or frying food. There are better alternatives for frying food, which we’ll talk about next. Olive oil is my go-to oil for salad dressings, cold dishes, and sometimes for baking. I also use olive oil in my facial cleanser.
All olive oil will go rancid eventually. When properly stored and handled, olive oil should last about two years. Olive oil should be stored in a dark container, and the oil should be a golden color. I try to stick with single-origin olive oils, which means the oil should come from one country or state versus a mixture of several different countries. One of my favorite olive oil brands that can be found in just about any store in the United States is California Olive Ranch.
Note: Light/refined olive oil has a high smoke point, 465F/240C, so this could be used for very high-temperature cooking.
Avocado oil has been gaining popularity in the American food scene, and rightfully so. Avocado oil is pressed from the pulp of the avocado, which produces a neutral-tasting oil. Avocado oil has a high smoke point, 460F/237C, which means the oil may be used for very high temperature cooking, including frying. Avocado oil is my go-to oil for anything that I need to lightly fry: plantains, chicken nuggets, etc. I also use avocado oil to make homemade mayo since it’s light and has such a neutral flavor.
When I first started using avocado oil the product was hard to find and the price was quite hefty. Costco now sells large bottles, pictured below, for about $14 (I believe). Most health food stores and online retailers, like Amazon, also sell avocado oil.
Coconut oil is a very popular oil these days, so it may surprise you to hear that I don’t use coconut oil very often. In fact, the only time I use coconut oil these days is for very random baking recipes that call for this oil, and DIYs (like deodorant and shaving cream). I personally don’t care for the distinct flavor that virgin coconut oil imparts on food. If you love the taste of coconut or you need to go dairy-free, coconut oil is a great cooking and baking ingredient option.
Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of the coconut. Coconut oil has a semi-high smoke point, 350F/177C, although it’s a bit lower than avocado oil. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, and liquid when the outside environment is warm. I prefer to use virgin and unrefined coconut oil. Nutiva brand is usually my go-to, but there are many great brands now on the market.
If you’ve spent any time in the recipe section of the blog, then you’re probably already aware of my deep love for butter. Butter is a fairly new food in my life, considering that the first 26 years were spent consuming that unspeakable m word (margarine, shudder).
Butter is a completely natural product, which is made by simply churning (shaking or beating) cream (the natural liquid that rises to the top in a jug of unhomogenized or raw milk). The shaking and beating of the cream transforms a once liquid substance into soft butter. Real butter should not contain added oils or preservatives, other than salt.
Butter is by far my favorite all-around fat to use in my kitchen. Butter adds amazing flavor and depth to dishes, from savory soups to sweet cookies. There isn’t anything butter can’t do. Well, except maybe a salad dressing. I’d even draw the line with that one.
Butter has the same smoke point temperature as coconut oil, 350F/175C, so it may be used for medium-high temperature cooking, but it will burn when kept at a very high temperature for a sustained period of time.
Not all butter is equal, because the quality of the butter you purchase really depends on where the cream that made the butter came from. In our modern-day age of industrial farming, cows no longer spend their time grazing the green meadows that are pictured on the signs in our grocery stores. The majority of dairy and beef in today’s market comes from cows living in giant CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation). Just Google CAFO and you’ll be able to scroll through pages of less-than-ideal-not-meadow-like images.
What’s the big deal? Well, cows weren’t designed to eat grain, corn, by-products, and everything else they eat via the CAFO feeders. Cows, by design, are meant to enjoy grass. Yes, supplementation may occur through the winters when grass isn’t present, but grass is the main staple of the cow’s diet. Not in America.
So what’s a butter and hamburger loving gal to do? The answer can be found in two little words: grass fed. When it comes to butter, or any dairy or beef, I look for grass-fed products. A couple of my favorite brands for butter are Kerrygold and Organic Valley. I purchase Kerrygold butter at Costco.
Just when I thought butter couldn’t get any better, ghee shows up!
Ghee is clarified butter. To create ghee, the milk solids are removed from butter through a heating process to create a natural butter substitute. The end result is a rich yellow, nutty-tasting, soft “butter” that doesn’t need refrigeration. Since the milk solids have been removed, many people who can’t consume dairy may be able to safely enjoy ghee.
Ghee is very simple to make at home, but it does require some patience. If you’d like to make ghee at home, this tutorial will help guide you through the process. Ghee can be found in the ethnic sections of many stores. Just like butter, look for a grass-fed option. Organic Valley is my preferred brand.
I keep a small jar of ghee in my pantry to enjoy mainly on toast and occasionally for cooking. Ghee has a much higher smoke point than butter, 450F/232C, so if you want a butter-like option for high-temperature cooking, this is your fat! I typically don’t use ghee for cooking or baking since we don’t have any dairy allergies, and I prefer to use less expensive butter, avocado, or olive oil.
My final fat and cooking oil choice may come as a surprise since my title included the words “healthier fat.” Let’s talk about good ol’ lard.
Poor lard isn’t the most respected fat choice available, and probably isn’t one that most Americans have ever tried eating or cooking with. I think the shunning of lard is the direct result of the product, Crisco, which replaced lard. Crisco was invented by a candle-maker for burning candles during the Civil War.
Lard, unlike vegetable shortening or Crisco, is a natural product that’s made by heating the fat leftover from a slaughtered pig (yes, graphic, but true). The resulting fat is strained and then used for cooking and baking. Lard may be added to pie crusts or biscuits, or used to fry food. The smoke point of lard is around 400F/204C.
I personally don’t care for the wild odor and taste of lard, but if you can tolerate it, this fat is a good real food option to stock in your pantry. I only recommend using lard from a pastured pig, which means you’ll need to find a local pork farm and make your own, or purchase a trusted brand like Epic (pictured below) or Fatworks.
Oils and Fats to Avoid
There are a few oils and fats that I avoid at all costs, because of health reasons. Let’s take a look at each one…
Contrary to modern day advertising propaganda, canola oil is not healthy or real food. Canola oil is made from the rapeseed which in the past was only used for industrial purposes due to a high amount of erucic acid (a heart-damaging acid in rat studies). With a little tweaking and genetic modification the oil was introduced to the public under a new name “canola oil” (formerly known as rapeseed oil).
Contrary to the name, this oil does not contain healthy vegetables. Vegetable oil is obtained through the extraction of rapeseed, sunflower, corn, soy, safflower, and others. Vegetable oil is high in Omega-6 which in excess can have significant health consequences. Conventional corn and soy are genetically modified in the US and are major players in the making of this oil, along with chemicals and additives.
Vegetable Shortening (i.e. Crisco)
Vegetable shortening is made with highly processed oils, many of which are genetically modified. Crisco was invented by a candle-maker for burning candles during the Civil War. Food companies replaced vegetable shortening for the more expensive (and real) alternative, lard.
Margarine was created to be an inexpensive alternative to butter. Margarine is a man-made butter substitute made with a blend of vegetable oils, along with chemicals and additives. Margarine is basically man’s very poor and unhealthy attempt to replicate something that naturally occurs in nature, cream and then butter.