intro to cooking fats {what you need to know}

One question I get with almost every client revolves around this thought – WHAT FATS TO USE WHEN?!  Friends, this topic could be discussed for dayzzzz.  But yours truly likes to become an expert on such topics and am here to save your day….The recommendations I give have shifted over the years (they used to be based primarily on quality + smoke point), but as I have dived into more research (which has to my delight has basically been re-learning chemistry) I am happy to say that I have landed in a comfy, tasty + traditional position!

As most of you guys know, I do not particulary like to label foods as “good” or “bad” – however, there will be a few exceptions to my rule in this particular discussion. Only because there are some really GOOD cooking fats to use, and there are some super-processed and refined cooking fats that cause damage and promote free-radicals (the opposite of good).  We deserve to at least know some facts, right?

Now I am going to try my hardest to not be too “science-y” here – but there will need to be a short blurb about “oxidation this” and “rancid, mutating that” to get my point across. Let’s start with where all of this information comes from – keeping things simple, with a traditional, real (+whole) foods-based approach that nourishes our cells, and therefore our lives.

Beginning with the traditional fats that have been used for centuries.

Fats such as olive oil, butter (grass-fed), ghee (clarified butter – grass-fed), macadamia nut oil, coconut oil, animal fats (lard, tallowfrom grass-fed animals – notice the theme here?), palm oil and peanut oil are all GREAT choices to select as they can tolerate heat, high temp cooking and processing without changing the nature of their chemical structure.  Why?  Because of the strength of their bonds.  Butter, ghee, coconut oil, lard and tallow (beef fat) are saturated fats (think: solid at room temperature).  We have been led to believe that saturated fat is bad for us, and if you still believe that, please read this.  I will say what I have said all along – quality matters!  Saturated fats given to us from nature + grass-fed, happy and humanely raised animals are the sources we need to be consuming, versus conventionally raised meats. (<– stay tuned for future blog post as to how quality changes things!)  Now back to it…saturated fats can withstand heat, thus avoiding heat-damaging oxidation (oxidation – where the chaos starts).  Because of their shape (they have no double bonds – think “fully saturated”), they leave no room for oxygen to squeeze in.  So even when the heat is cranked up on these guys, they hold their natural form and structure so tight as to avoid being damaged.  Therefore, no rancid fats circulating the bloodstream.

happy cows = happy butter = happy human

Moving on to our monounsaturated fats (MUFA’a).

These fats have just ONE double bond, which means it has one “unsaturated” carbon bond that is available to bind with oxygen – however that process is NOT easy.  Because it is very difficult for this one double bond to become oxidized and create free-radicals, monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and macadamia nut oil are still okay to cook with.

Lastly, let’s speak briefly about polyunsaturated fats (PUFA’s).

These fats in and of themselves can be a good thing (omega-3’s are PUFA’s).  However, when it comes to the highly-processed vegetable oils such soy, canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, rice bran and grapeseed – they are highly unstable and damaging to our systems because they are created using high temps, which their chemical structure just. cannot. take.  Vegetable oils are the LAST thing you want to be cooking with because the level of processing and refining of these oils completely change the chemical structure and create damaging, unstable fats.  Because they have TWO double bonds, it makes them BILLIONS of times more likely to bind with oxygen and create oxidative reactions.  Crazy, huh?  And what is even more wild is the fact that these oils are in almost E V E R Y T H I N G – granola, pretty much any packaged food, pretty much anything we order at the restaurant, baked goods, meat substitutes, mayonnaise, “roasted” nuts, dried fruit, nut butters, salad dressings, hummus, + anything and everything between.  Why?  Because they are cheap.

And because I STILL want you to eat your wild-caught salmon to get your anti-inflammatory omega 3’s, and some of you are recognizing the above statement that heating these PUFA’s can be damaging, know that cooking salmon is different than the processing of these oils.  The salmon itself is getting exposed to lower temps and for a decreased amount of time compared to the creation of these vegetable oils, thus not resulting in a high loss of health benefits.

This should go without mentioning, but trans fats (+ partially hydrogenated oils) should be avoided at all costs.  These fats are man-made by an industrialized process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil, making a once liquid fat now solid at room temperature (Crisco, Earth Balance, Smart Balance, Benecol, Country Crock, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter).


What to consider –

So when it comes to when to use what fats – the first thing we want to consider is the quality of the fat source.  Is it naturally occurring or is it heavily processed?  (Vegetable oils = majorly processed)

Next we want to consider the stability of the fats – what type of fatty acid is it?  Saturated fat, contrary to popular belief, is more stable and heat resistant, therefore a good bet.

Smoke point is the final factor we need to consider, however this comes secondary to the above mentioned (remember that saturated fatty acids, with no double bonds, are heat resistant, therefore will hold strong and remain stable during the cooking process).

We have arrived! My recommendations for when to use what fats:

As mentioned earlier, ghee is clarified butter, which basically means the impurities + milk solids have been removed (which makes this an excellent option if you do not tolerate dairy!).  This process creates a smooth, caramelized flavor that is amazzzzing with just about anything, but it also increases the smoke point (ghee develops smoke when temp reaches 480° F, versus butter’s smoke point of 300° F).  Therefore, grass-fed ghee is my first choice for cooking just about anything.  (Did I mention it is FULL of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, K2, conjugated linoleic acid’s, omega 3’s, + butyric acid?  Hello, healthy chunk of gold).

And because they are also super stable fats, coconut oil, beef tallow + good ol’ fashioned butter are also options we use often at our house when cooking at higher temps!  (equally as good include heat-stable lard + palm oil).

I suggest using coconut oil when you don’t mind the potential hint of coconut flavor – like when sautéing or baking things such as sweet potatoes and butternut squash.  The coconut oil makes the sweetness POP in my opinion.  I also use it when I am prepping a dish that calls for coconut milk as to accentuate the coconut flavor.  The smoke point for unrefined coconut oil is 350° F, but remember since it is a saturated fat it is less susceptible to heat damage.

So this leaves us with the primarily monounsaturated olive (smoke point of 375° F) + macadamia nut oils (smoke point of 410° F).  Because they are moderately stable (remember they only have one double bond and are still tough to denature), these fats can still be used for cooking, however for FULL health benefits, I recommend using these oils either in their “raw” form, or for “finishing” dishes (when they need a hit of flavor after cooking). Olive oil is great for homemade salad dressings, veggie drizzles, or freshly prepared pesto!  Macadamia nut oil is great for homemade mayo.  I also use olive oil for sautéing greens or other veggies at medium-low to medium temps.

Let’s wrap this up….

Using natural fats (nature doesn’t give us “bad” fats) and opting to avoid processed ones is key to optimal health and reducing our body’s toxic burden and inflammation, thus our risk for developing chronic disease.  BUT at the end of the day, we are going to be exposed to foods prepared with these vegetable oils, and that’s okay.  It just becomes a matter of trying our best to control what we can when we can, which let’s be real – is super hard.  I encourage you (and me, too!) to make it your (uhum, our) goal to prepare your own food using these types of cooking fats, so that you can lean more towards a balanced body while never actually getting there (because, #impossible).

If you have any sort of desire to dive deeper into the science behind traditional fats and why they are necessary, I highly recommend the book Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food by Catherine Shanahan MD + Luke Shanahan.  

4 comments on “intro to cooking fats {what you need to know}”

  1. Kelly Belkoff says:

    Thanks for the fat breakdowns!!! I just got home from work and threw out our old nasty vegetable oil! I rarely ever use it unless I bake and it calls for it but…not any more!

    1. Yay!!! This makes me so happy! Thanks for sharing dear friend!!

  2. Emily S Davis says:

    I just read this with my sister and we so appreciate your take on it… the ‘nature doesn’t give us bad fats’ really resonated with us!

    1. Hi Emily! Thank you for your comment. So happy you and your sister enjoyed and found a good take home point!

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