Oil is an essential part of cooking. But there may be a way around the negatives some oils bring to the cooking table.
Fat is not all bad—we just tend to get too much of it. The body uses fat to insulate organs and regulate temperature, and is the preferred source of energy for muscles at rest. Some fat has a protective effect for the heart. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, soybean oil and walnuts, may actually contribute to heart health and are important for brain development in children.
Vitamin E is found in the fatty portions of food. Good sources of Vitamin E are vegetable oils (e.g., sunflower), olive oils, avocados, nuts, seeds and wheat germ. It has strong antioxidant properties and may help protect against heart disease and cancer.
Dietary fats are either saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats are very tough substances that are fairly solid at room temperature. Saturation makes for a very strong molecule that is difficult to break apart. For this reason, saturated fats give very good texture and mouthfeel to food.
Trans fatty acids are formed when naturally unsaturated oils, such as canola or corn, are hydrogenated. For years it was thought that hydrogenated vegetable oils, like the type found in margarines or solid vegetable shortenings, were healthier than animal fats, such as butter or lard.
New thinking: It’s now thought that the bonds made from adding hydrogen to vegetable oil, called trans fatty acid bonds, may do just as much damage to the veins and arteries as animal fat.
Chefs oftentimes prefer to cook with saturated fats, such as butter or bacon fat, which contribute texture and taste to many menu items. For example, butter or hydrogenated vegetable oil give the correct texture and taste to cookie dough. Unfortunately, saturated fats are difficult for the body to break down. Excess saturated fats are stored in the walls of veins and arteries, narrowing them and causing a decrease in elasticity and in volume. This ultimately leads to various disease states.
Part of the answer to this dilemma is to use any type of fat sparingly. A primer on oils, especially those newly available, can also help.
Let’s go shopping: Not so long ago, you had a choice of corn or soy oils. Then the oil producers introduced canola oil (short for “Canadian oil, low acid” as its true name is the unmarketable “rapeseed”). After canola, many people began a romance with olive oil, training their palates to distinguish between extra virgin and pomace or Spanish and Greek.
Today, you need to allot extra time when procuring vegetable oil. There is grapeseed oil (pressed from grape pits and peels), walnut oil, avocado oil and many others. You can have fun with oil selection, and taste-test and cook-test to see which specialty oils meet your needs. Just remember that the healthiest vegetable oil is still all fat—about 50 calories per teaspoon.
- Rice bran oil is a new kid on the block. It’s said to help reduce some forms of cancer, and is very high in Vitamin E. Rice bran oil has a light taste and can stand up to high heat. Watch for rice bran oil to be available to foodservice in the near future.
- Almond oil has a faint almond-y aroma and flavor. It can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Try adding almond oil to strong-tasting vegetables, such as shredded green or red cabbage or broccoli or cauliflower florets.
- Hazelnut oil should be purchased in small quantities because of cost and shelf life. Hazelnut oil has a dreamy flavor, and enhances delicate fruits and vegetables, such as fresh lettuces, baby cucumbers, seasonal berries and ripe melon. A dressing of a light drizzle of hazelnut oil is all that is needed to bring out the best in seasonal produce.
- Avocado oil goes well with lean poultry and seafood and grilled seafood. Use it as a finish, brushed onto a grilling item right before it’s taken off the grill.
Just because an oil, according to claims, “helps to reduce this” or “ is a good source of that” doesn’t mean you can carelessly pour it on. Specialty oils tend to have shorter shelf lives than standard cooking oils, such as corn, soy, safflower and cottonseed. Much of the nutritional value can be lost over time.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), a heart-healthy diet has no more than 25-35% to total daily calories from fat. Twenty percent of daily fat calories should be from monounsaturated fat, like olive oil. Ten percent of daily fat calories should be from polyunsaturated fat, like corn oil or soy products. The remaining fat can come from saturated fat, if necessary. The NHLBI’s final word is: “Moderate amounts of either butter or margarine can be part of a healthy diet. A person’s whole diet and general health must be considered in the choice.”
Perhaps to strike a balance between butter or margarine or oils, you can add some nut butters to your menus. Nut butters can be used (sparingly) in creamy sauces, curries, barbecue sauce, dips, salad dressings, and yes, as sandwich spreads.
You’ve heard the news: nuts are good for your health. Even though nuts are high in fat, it’s the “good” type of fat, and can help to reduce the incidence of certain cancers, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and even facilitate weight loss.
Just so you can put the amount of fat in perspective, most nut butters have seven to 10 grams of fat per tablespoon (about 63-90 calories), mostly unsaturated fat. Along with the “healthy” fat, nut butters are a good source of protein, zinc, fiber, potassium, folic acid and zinc.
Here is a quick guide to some commercially available nut butters. Use them judiciously:
- Peanut butter. Look for all-natural peanut butter, which should be 100 percent peanuts. Most commercial brands contain the dreaded trans-fats, and may have added sugar, flour, or other ingredients. Use a small amount of peanut butter stirred into creamy soups, salad dressings and dips. Peanut butter is a good source of protein, niacin and magnesium
- Tahini (sesame seed butter). Tahini is made by grinding sesame seeds. It is a flavoring in hummus, a garbanzo bean dip. Add tahini to dips, sauces, poultry, beans and vegetable dishes. (Check market gourmet sections and natural food stores for supply.)
- Cashew butter has a very rich flavor; a little goes a long way. Cashew butter can be used as an alternative to dairy butter or to cream in soups, baked goods and sauces. Cashew butter is a good source of protein, iron, and some B vitamins.
- Almond butter is mild and creamy. Most almond butter is processed without preservatives, so refrigerate it when you bring it home. Almond butter can accent the flavors of soups, stronger- tasting vegetables, such as broccoli, and vinaigrette salad dressings. Almond butter is a good source of protein and Vitamin E.
- Hazelnut butter. The height of decadence, hazelnut butter is a popular sandwich and dessert spread. You can find European blends of hazelnut and chocolate that are used in baked goods, tea sandwiches or to top biscotti or scones. Hazelnut butters can be used in savory vegetable dishes and sauces. Hazelnut butter is a good source of folic acid and calcium.
- Soy butter. Although technically not a nut, soy beans can be roasted and whipped into a nut-butter type product. Soy butter has both a roasted and a nutty flavor that fits in well on sandwiches, in sauces and where you would usually use peanut butter.