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What up, y’all? I hope you are all doing well! This post, I wanted to talk about oils and fats; what they are, best uses, general knowledge, and more or less give y’all the lowdown on how they affect your cooking! Let’s get into it…

Start from Square One

“Oils” are any fatty substance that is extracted from a seed or vegetable. “Fats” on the other hand are any fatty substance that is extracted from an animal or animal product (butter). Put simply, Oils come from vegetables, Fats come from animals. So when talking about the two, if you want to be specific, use the correct terms.

Melting, Smoke, and Flash Points

Now that we got the basics out of the way, what’s the difference in how to use them? Well, the answer to that is in the difference between each oil/fat’s melting, smoke, and flash points.

Melting point is the temperature when an oil/fat becomes liquid. For different applications, you want an oil/fat to be liquid and cool, like when making a vinaigrette or an aioli. Coconut Oil is terrible for making vinaigrettes because it is solid at room temperature. Most animal fats (bacon fat, chicken fat/schmaltz, etc.) are also solid at room temp, so they are not great at making a vinaigrette or an aioli by themselves. You may sometimes see them used to flavor an aioli or used to make a warm vinaigrette, but because it is warm, it won’t stay emulsified (but I’ll save the emulsification talk for another post).

When using oils/fats with higher melting temperatures (bacon fat, coconut oil, etc.) to make an aioli or vinaigrette, you first need to build a cool/cold emulsion with an oil with a lower melting point (canola, vegetable, grapeseed, avocado, etc.), then add in the fat with a higher melting point (bacon fat, coconut oil, etc.) that has been gently heated to make it liquid. You also have to add it slowly as not to warm the emulsion too much or the heat will cause it to break. This has to be done carefully and delicately because if you heat an emulsion too much, the oil/fat in it will decrease in viscosity and fall out of suspension (aka. breaking your emulsion), but it can be done! I had Bacon Aioli and Chorizo Aioli on the menu at one of my former restaurants and they were both delicious! We just made them with canola oil and slowly drizzled the barely liquid Bacon/Chorizo fat at the end to add flavor. I like to use these two as examples because it can be done, you just need to understand what’s happening and work with the science of it! :D

Smoke point is the temperature when the oil/fat will start to smoke and begin to break down. Smoke point is helpful to know a little bit about when dealing with higher heat applications, like searing, sautéing, or stir frying. Generally, fats have lower smoke points than oils and each oil/fat will have their own specific smoke point. In my Essential Series Books, I have a chart with most of the common oils/fats that are used in with their different melting and smoke points to help with selecting which ones will be best for various applications. To give you a general idea, Avocado Oil has a smoke point of 520°F, Canola Oil is 420°F, while Bacon Fat is only 325°F and Butter is 300°F. It’s not only better, but necessary, to use a fat with a higher smoke point if you want to get a good sear on your food because the oil can stand up to the heat necessary to actually create the sear (also known as the Maillard Reaction, or the browning of proteins. More about this in a minute). When an oil gets overheated and begins to break down, it will lose its viscosity (get thicker), stop lubricating the food, and release bitter flavors and compounds into the food. Not good for delicious food! So using the proper fat/oil for the type of cooking you want to do is essential!

Smoke points can be helpful in the cooking process too! When searing a piece of protein, you want to get the pan hotter than searing temperature (searing temp is 280-330°F) so when you add the colder protein to the hot pan, the resulting pan temperature will stay above the temp needed to create a sear (280-330°F). So when using a higher heat temperature cooking oil, like Canola Oil (smoke point of 420°F), when it just begins to smoke, that is a good indication that your pan is hot enough to add your protein to get a sear. I highlighted the “just begins” part because you want to basically catch the pan temp on the way up in temp and let the cool protein bring it back down to a temp that the oil can handle and not break down. That way, you can get a good sear, won’t break down the oil, and will maintain a high enough pan temp to continue searing the protein. If a pan temp goes too low, that’s when the moisture will begin to come out of the protein and that is when/why it will also stick to the pan. Searing requires a high enough heat to produce the Maillard Reaction and that requires an oil/fat that can handle that temperature. Pretty simple when you know the fundamentals…

Flash point is when an oil/fat will ignite and catch fire. This is a grease fire and YOU SHOULD NEVER PUT WATER ON A GREASE FIRE!!! Simply smother it with a lid or another pan should this happen in your kitchen. You can also put baking soda or salt on it to smother a grease fire. If the grease fire happens to go under things (like burners), you can pour some cream on it as cream is a fat-based liquid and won’t cause it to explode like putting water on a grease fire will. If the oil gets so hot that it ignites (or flashes), it is dead. Wait until the pan cools, clean it out, and start again with an improved understanding of what is TOO HOT for cooking with oil/fat. And don’t feel bad! It happens to every cook at some point!

Why do these matter?

Ok, so now you have the what, let me explain the why. Half of all cooking methods are Dry Heat Cooking Methods. That simply means that you are cooking with Fat/Oil as opposed to cooking with Water (aka Moist Heat Cooking Methods). So fat/oil is necessary for half of the cooking methods out there and understanding how fat/oil reacts to heat is necessary for understanding what you are doing in half of all cooking methods. The Maillard Reaction is the browning of proteins (similar to caramelization, which is the browning of sugar). The Maillard Reaction is why we love toasted nuts, coffee, chocolate, fried foods, and seared/grilled meats. We often refer to this as a sear when talking about protein. The Maillard Reaction can only happen between 280°F and 330°F. Because water boils at 212°F, when there is water present, the pan temp can only be as high as 212°F and you cannot produce a sear (or the Maillard Reaction). For this reason, you have to use fat and you need to have the pan hot enough if you want to get a sear. Plain and simple. If the pan isn’t hot enough when you add the protein, instead of producing a sear and searing in the moisture of the protein, you will produce steam from the moisture present in the protein which will draw out more moisture from the protein in basically a chain reaction. Because this is now a moist environment (in the pan), the temp will be 212°F and thus is too low to get a sear. You need to start hot and maintain a hot pan to get a good sear. Fat/oil is also the cooking medium that transfers the heat of the pan to the items in it. You need to have enough fat/oil in the pan to evenly saute, stir fry, or sear. Choosing the right oil for the type of cooking that you want to do is important to be able to get the result you are looking for! Generally, you want to use an Oil (Canola, Avocado, Grapeseed) for searing, stir frying, or sautéing and a Fat (Bacon Fat, Chicken Fat, Butter) for lower cooking temp applications like Cooking Eggs or Confit. You can add in a fat/lower temp oil at the end of cooking, once your searing is finished and the pan temp is lower. This is a way to get the flavor benefits of a fat (yay Bacon Grease, EVOO, and Butter!) without burning/breaking down the fat while searing. This is very common in cooking to finish a pasta, seared steak, or saute with a little Butter or Extra Virgin Olive Oil at the end of cooking to add flavor. Now you know why!

A note about Olive oil

I often get asked about using Olive Oil for everything so I wanted to take a second to talk about it specifically. Olive Oils are typically separated into Extra Virgin, and regular Olive Oil. Extra Virgin is the first pressing of the olives and it contains more flavor properties (which are also impurities) in the oil. Regular Olive Oil comes from subsequent pressing/grinding and is a higher refined oil with less impurities (and flavors) than Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

EVOO, as it is commonly abbreviated, has a lower smoke point (350°F) compared to the Olive Oil (375°F) because of the added (flavorful) impurities. While you can use these as cooking oils, because of their lower smoke points, they are harder to use and still get good sears. It’s certainly not impossible, it just requires a better ability to control heat in the pan/kitchen to achieve the same results and not accidentally overheat the oil or under sear your items. EVOO in particular, can also add a little bitterness to your food because it typically has more bitter notes in it. This certainly varies by brand, but is a general truth across the board with EVOO.

For these reasons, I typically advise cooks to use a more neutral oil (like Canola, Grapeseed, or Avocado) with a higher smoke point for searing/sautéing and save the EVOO and Olive Oil for lower hear preparations like confiting, finishing dishes, drizzling, vinaigrettes, etc. But while we are on the topic, I also don’t recommend using only EVOO for a vinaigrette because it can make them bitter. Use some as a flavoring accent if you like, just not the whole of the oil for the the vinaigrette. If you like your vinaigrettes with only EVOO, by all means keep doing it! That’s just my experience with it and wanted to share.

How to choose?

Now that you have the background knowledge, it is easy to sum up. As long as you keep Smoke Point and Melting Point in mind with what your intended use is, you can interchange any Fat or Oil for another in just about any preparation. The difference is simply flavor and preference. Use any fat or oil however you want (with respect to melting and smoke points) and experiment with different ones to see what you like in different preparations! Choosing a fat/oil that adds flavor or not is one of the things that gives each dish its own distinct flavor. Sometimes you want your oil/fat to add flavors, sometimes you want to let the food shine on its own. There’s no right or wrong answer here, folks! Play and have fun! That’s what cooking is all about!! :D

A quick note on health

This post is all from a cooking perspective, not from a health perspective. For a health perspective, talk to your doctor or dietitian because I am not a doctor or dietitian and cannot hand out dietary advice. I certainly have my opinions and I’m happy to share them, but I am not qualified as a dietitian or doctor, so please let their advice supersede my thoughts on this.

Here’s my 2 cents: if you cook more of your own food (instead of eating restaurant or processed food), generally you will be healthier regardless of the choice of fat you cook with. This assumes two things: you eat a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and don’t overly rely on dairy, fatty meats, carbs, or oversalting/sugaring your food. Cook your own food, make it mostly vegetables, and don’t eat processed foods and you don’t have to worry about what type of fat you choose. I have been cooking this way and cooking 99% of my own meals for years and my blood levels of fat, cholesterol, blood pressure, etc. are fantastic! And I don't take the best care of myself outside of cooking my own food. I don’t work out regularly, I drink a little too much alcohol, and I work a good bit too much. But I do cook my own food and I don’t worry about using a little bacon fat or butter when it makes sense to make my food sing!! That keeps me wanting to eat my own food and not wanting to eat out!

In our house we generally cook with Grapeseed Oil, use any fats that come off of our stocks or bacon (when we have it) for sautés, and use butter for eggs when we have them, typically on weekends. But again, this is just my own take on this, for whatever it's worth to y’all!

Now that you know what the deal is with Oils and Fats and how they affect your food and cooking, I hope you’ll feel more comfortable in the kitchen, cook more confidently, and feel encouraged to experiment and make your food, your way!!

Happy Cooking, Y’all! Love ya!!

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