Culinary Waves: by Chef Mary Beth Lawton Johnson
I have used many different kinds of cooking oils on board, from heart-healthy canola oil made from the canola seed to vegetable shortening for biscuits to grape seed oil and cold-pressed olive oil to real butter, avocado oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, and even vegetable and animal shortening.
When in a hurry, chefs tend to grab the closest oil or fat at hand. But fat is one of the most important ingredients in a recipe and should be selected purposefully based on saturation and heat factors, plus the flavor factor.
Everyone thinks we should just skip the saturated oils. No, don’t. Why? Saturated means stable. According to the USDA, saturated fats – coconut oil, chicken fat, beef fat, lard and ghee, or butter – have been shown to suffer the least amount of oxidative damage when exposed to higher heat and light. Oxidative damage causes free radicals, which we don’t want in our bodies.
Saturated fats do play a role in a healthy diet. Coconut oil, for example, is abundant in lauric acid, which, when broken down, turns into monolaurin, and monolaurin has been shown to have antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Some animal fats, such as duck fat, are half monounsaturated and half saturated. The monounsaturated half helps with artery functions, and the saturated half keeps it from being damaged in cooking. Be mindful in your use, however, because animals store in their fat any toxins that are present in their diet. Yikes.
Although polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats offer many health benefits, they are more susceptible to heat and light damage. Monounsaturated fats – olive oil, peanut oil, macadamia oil, avocado oil – can be used for light cooking at low temperatures, but cooking on high heat with them is not recommended because then you are just pouring free radicals into your body. Polyunsaturated fats – sesame oil, flax seed and fish oil – are damaged by heat and should not be used for cooking.
Vegetable fats, such as vegetable shortening, by the way, are manufactured using chemicals and some vegetable products. Oils like canola are made from high heat and chemicals, and are already damaged before they even hit your pan. Eating it is eating a broken fatty acid chain, which causes free radicals in your body.
So when you are searching for the perfect fat to use in a recipe, consider the heat involved in preparation of the food. High-heat cooking includes grilling, sautéing, frying, broiling and pan roasting. Basically, if you are going to be cooking above 375 F, you need a fat that is stable enough to withstand high heat.
Keep in mind the smoke point of the fat if you have to crank the heat up. For example, butter has a high fat content, but it burns at a certain temperature. And burnt fat is definitely not something you want to put into your body. Grape seed oil, although it is a polyunsaturated oil, has a higher smoke point than butter – about 390 F to 420 F – and can be used for cooking at higher heat.
Certain fats can give off certain flavors, and that’s another important aspect to consider. When I caramelize onions for French onion soup, for example, do I really want coconut oil flavoring it? How about a pan fry on crab cakes – what kind of fat should I go with there? An olive oil, or combo mix of olive oil and butter? Should I select a more neutral fat to crisp them?
For chicken and potatoes I use duck fat, which really gives a crisp exterior to both. This fat can be found in the frozen section of the grocery store, and a little goes a long way. But animal fats are not what I reach for when there are people on board who have heart issues.
One of the latest trending fats is red palm oil, but it decimates the forests where it is harvested, so that one is out. There are a lot of factors involved in choosing a fat, as one can see.
My go-to fat is cold-pressed olive oil. There have been some issues with safflower oil in green bottles being sold as “olive oil,” so I always check the label to see where it is bottled.
Mary Beth Lawton Johnson is a certified executive pastry chef and Chef de Cuisine who has worked on yachts for over 25 years. Comments are welcome below.