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Chasing Delicious | Kitchen 101: Cooking Fats & Oils
Curious about the smoking point of a particular oil? Wondering if you can use a certain fat in baking? This Kitchen 101 post will let you know!
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Kitchen 101: Cooking Fats & Oils

When it comes to cooking and baking, there is no shortage of fats and oils. Plants, flowers, seeds, nuts, animal fat, and milk almost all seem to end up as a cooking oil or fat at one point in time or another. And today, a trip down the oil isle makes it clear just how many choices exist. But can they all be used interchangeably? And if not, what do you have to take into consideration?

Kitchen 101: Cooking Fats and Oils at Chasing Delicious. Infographic by @rvank


Fat & Oil Characteristics

The answer to the first question is a big no. And to answer the second question, you must take in to consideration four main aspects of a cooking oil or fat: 1. smoking point, 2. flavor, 3. how it interacts with other ingredients, and 4. its nutritional value.

Smoking Points

Some oils, like linseed (or flaxseed) oil have very low smoking points (smoking point meaning the temperature at which the oil begins to burn) while other oils like Avacado oil and soybean oil (marketed in most grocery stores simply as vegetable oil) have high smoking points. Why is this important? Two things happen when an oil reaches its smoking point. First, it begins to burn and breakdown, thus quickly passing the point of no return for palatability. Second, and probably most importantly, this is the often the point at which an oil or fat reaches it’s autoignition temperature – that’s right, oil sustained at a high enough temperature will spontaneously catch fire without an ignition source and oil fires are never, ever a good thing. This is why you don’t deep fry with butter (which will just create a horrid taste and smell anyways) or with an oil with a low smoking point as it could suddenly catch fire.

Oil Fires: By the way, the best way to combat an oil fire is to immediately cover the pot with a very tight-fitting lid, thus robbing the fire of oxygen. Then as soon as it is safe, you need to turn the heat off or remove the pot from the heat source by very carefully sliding it aside to an unlit burner; do not pick up a pot of oil that is on fire! If that doesn’t work, you better hope you have a fire extinguisher that is rated for oil fires. Never ever – EVER EVER EVER – use water to fight an oil fire. Understood? Do I need to make y’all sign a liability waiver before we move on?


Flavor

Just like most oils and fats vary wildly in their smoking points, most have a range of flavors, from little to no discernible flavor at all, to that smack-you-in-your-face flavor which will find it’s way into the food you are cooking. Butter for example does this, and it is a wonderful, delightful, orgasmic flavor – this is why butter is good and why we all love butter. Oils like soybean oil have little to no flavor and will not leach flavor into foods. And flavor can often overrule smoking point when it comes to the oil you choose. Just because you can deep fry with a particular oil, doesn’t mean you should – as it could adversely effect the flavor of the dish.


Of course, it can work the other way around too. Some oils will actually absorb the flavors of the food they are cooking while others will not. This is why oils like canola can be used more than once for frying.

Interaction

The easiest way to explain this is talking about the difference between using butter, lard, and shortening in a pie crust. As you may already know, a perfect pie crust is both flaky and delicious. Lard and shortening will both create a very flaky crust as they are not as likely to mix into the flour , which gives the flour an opportunity to let tough gluten form. However, both are relatively tasteless (and shortening can leave a strange film in your mouth). Butter on the other hand is more likely to melt into the flour and create a tougher dough, even though it has superior flavor to lard and shortening. So, how do we get the perfect pie crust? For me, the answer is a mix of butter and lard.

Nutritional Value

The biggest issue with fats and oils is the fact that they are essentially all fat (whether saturated, unsaturated, or trans fat). Today, most people will tell you unsaturated fats are good for you, saturated fats are not the best for you, and trans fats are downright evil. So, how do we tell what has what? If it is solid at room temperature, then it will be high in saturated fats (as saturated fats are solid at room temperature). If it is a liquid, then it will be high in unsaturated fats (as unsaturated fats – mono and poly – are not solid at room temperature). As for trans fats, those come from refining and emulsifying oils. Fats like shortening or margarin, which are simply an emulsified vegetable oils, are going to be very high in trans fats.


That said, Coconut oil, which has a shockingly high saturated fat content, is actually regard as a very health fat. Like most in life, it’s a case by case value and requires delving a little deeper into the ingredients. If you are concerned about the health aspect of a particular oil or fat, take the time to research into it a bit. Don’t just assume it will be healthy or unhealthy based on its fat content.

 


What’s your favorite oil or fat to use in cooking? Share it, and some tips for using it, in the comments!


Concept by: Hisham Srour
Design by: Russell van Kraayenburg

AUTHOR - Russell van Kraayenburg

Born and raised in Texas, Russell van Kraayenburg may sit you down for a stern lecture if you confuse barbecue with grilling. Creator of Chasing Delicious, and author of Haute Dogs, his work has been featured in Southern Living magazine and on such sites as Lifehacker, Fast Co. Design, Business Insider, The Kitchn, Live Originally, The Daily What, Quipsologies, Neatorama,Explore, and Fine Cooking.

22 Comments

5
  • Jeanette | Jeanette's Healthy Living

    Great resource Russell – I use mostly olive oil but I do love coconut oil – it smells so good!

  • Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen

    Coconut oil and butter are my top choices for cooking and anything that involves heat while olive oil and avocado oil are the ones I turn to the most for salads and other cold preparations.

  • Whitney @ The Newlywed Chefs

    Love this! I love cooking with coconut oil. And grapeseed oil, lately!

  • Carolyn

    Holy wow, Russell. That graphic is amazing and so informative!

  • Gail {a healthy hunger}

    Fantastic post! Thank you SO much for this valuable information.

  • Shaina

    I love this poster. Have you ever thought about making these magnets? It’d be perfect in 5×7 on the side of my fridge.

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  • Teresa

    Why do you rate regular olive oil higher than EVOO for cooking at a higher temperature? I’ve read other things that say EVOO has a higher smoke point than regular olive oil, since the impurities have been filtered out. Not that EVOO should be used for such things, in my opinion. I just need some clarification.

    Found this via Lifehacker, and it is a great, eye catching chart.

  • Chad

    This is an awesome! One question: is there a reason you omitted palm oil? It is the worlds largest edible oil.

  • Matt

    It’s a shame such a great idea is wasted on imperial units, given more people use metric.

  • ben

    What makes an oil good for baking, and where on the wheel would you say macadamia nut oil would be?

    I’ve seen some listings that show mac oil having a smoke point of 385F/390F (Michael Lam/Monica Reinagel), placing it rather low.. and then other sites showing it as high as 410F/413F (cavemandoctor, wiki), making it one of the best.

    So in comparison, I imagine it would be good for deep frying, sauteing, sweating, salad dressing, dipping/spreading, flavoring, but what about baking?

    It’s interesting that the the high saturated fats (butter, coconut oil) have such low smoke points and are not for deep frying. Quite counter-intuitive!

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    Where is rice bran oil ?

  • André

    Is there also an Celsius version?

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