A few weeks ago, we talked about common, heavily refined cooking oils that aren’t as healthy as you might think. And now, congratulations! You’ve done it. You’ve found flavorful, aromatic, truly unrefined oil that tastes, smells, and looks like the fruit, nut, or seed the oil was squeezed from (for example, unrefined peanut oil has a mahogany hue; unrefined avocado oil is a gentle green).
Now that you have your unrefined oil, how should you use it so you can make the most of it in terms of flavor and nutrition? Which ones stand up to high heat and which ones require a more nuanced approach? The “rules” of oils are much simpler than you think: just look at the fat breakdown on the label, and you’ll immediately know what to do with it. We’re going to decode it all here. For the purposes of this list, “fat” is used to describe a fat that’s solid at room temperature while “oil” is a fat that’s liquid at room temperature.
Sturdy Fats: The Saturated Fats
Saturated fat is more stable than unsaturated fats, so the best oils/fats to use when cooking with high heat are the ones that are primarily composed of saturated fat. If you want to sear over high heat, deep-fry, or broil, stick with these fats.
Ghee or clarified butter can handle over 500 degrees F—this is your go-to fat to use for high-heat cooking! While butter contains milk solids that burn and water that evaporates, ghee is 100 percent fat, so it won’t spit or sputter. Ghee is extremely shelf-stable and is the cooking fat of choice in India. “Butter chicken” is more accurately “ghee chicken.” Clarified butter is almost the same as ghee, except the milk solids in ghee are usually browned before the fat is poured off, whereas they are not browned in clarified butter. Ghee has a nuttier flavor and a longer shelf life.
Regular butter is suitable for medium-high heat, but those pesky milk solids and its water content (butter is 14-18 percent water, depending on whether it’s American or European-style) mean that butter can’t handle high heat. That said, a little bit of browning—what the French call beurre noisette—adds a welcome undertone of flavor.
Tropical oils like coconut and palm work in medium-high heat situations. Coconut oil is faintly sweet and tastes like coconut; red palm oil has a bright red hue (be careful—it stains!) and earthy flavor. Red palm oil contains more vitamin A than any other foodstuff, in part because vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, and red palm oil offers both vitamin A and fat in one package. It’s ideal to use with African and Brazilian dishes, while coconut is fantastic with Asian dishes, in sweet settings, and for popping popcorn. (Note that most palm oil is not produced using sustainable practices, so make your purchases carefully.)
Semi-Sturdy Fats: The Monounsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated fat is moderately stable, which is to say that it can handle medium heat. You can refrigerate monounsaturated fats to extend their shelf life, but note that they will be semi-liquid/semi-not-liquid when taken out of the fridge. (Think about what happens to olive oil when it’s chilled.) If you prefer your monounsaturated fats to be free-flowing, keep them in a cool, dark cupboard away from any heat sources. Don’t store them over or next to the stove or oven! Most oils fall into the monounsaturated category, so you can use them for medium-heat sautéing and baking, or you can use them in no-heat situations such as dressings, drizzles, and dips.
Animal fats such as lard, bacon drippings, and the drippings from roasted chicken and duck add an intense savory flavor to any dish. What doesn’t taste better with bacon? Drippings from roasted fowl make even the most humble side dish taste like it’s accompanied by a roast with all the trimmings. Call it the Willy Wonka chewing gum effect…except that unlike Violet Beauregarde, adding schmaltz to your mashed potatoes won’t make you turn into a giant blueberry.
Fruit oils like avocado and olive are creamy and buttery additions to everything from baked goods to sautés to a simple slice of bread. Ditch heavily refined vegetable oil and use unrefined avocado or extra-virgin olive oil instead! Avocado has mildest flavor of all oils, which isn’t surprising when you think about how avocados taste: mild and creamy. Extra-virgin olive oils vary greatly from olive to olive—some are smooth and buttery, while others are sharp and peppery. Perhaps you have an all-time favorite, or perhaps you’d rather use milder varieties for cooking at medium or lower heat and more flavorful varieties as drizzles.
Nut oils are delightfully nutty, and with the notable exception of walnut oil, nut oils are monounsaturated fats that can be used for baking or medium-heat sautéing. Want to add some Polynesian flair to your dish? Add macadamia nut oil. Almond and pistachio oils offer a hint of the Middle East. Hazelnut oil has long been popular in France; pecan and peanut oils have been used in the American South for generations. For your next party, offer a tasting of nut oils and see if guests can guess which is which. (The greenness of the pistachio is a pretty good clue.)