Fats and Cooking

Learn the ins and outs of the various fats to make cooking easier.

By FamilyTime


It’s near impossible to avoid fats when we cook, although we are constantly seeking ways to do so. While it’s a good idea to limit our fat intake, we need a little every day. Plus, fat makes cooking easier and the food taste better.

Fats and Cooking

Cooking requires fat. There is no way around it. Whether we sauté, pan-fry, or stir-fry, the fat lubricates the food and the pan so that nothing sticks, heat is evenly distributed and the food browns as it is supposed to. If we deep fry, the fat is the medium that cooks the food and gives it its tantalizing crispness.

We also rely on fats in sauces, dressings, marinades and vinaigrettes. They bring a sauce together and are necessary flavor conductors.

When we bake, fats are needed to make cakes and cookies tender and pastries flaky. We also use them to grease the pans so that our cakes and brownies don’t stick.

The Cooking Fats

Most of us cook with oil. The most common is vegetable oil, which is the commercial term for general all-purpose oils made from a mixture of corn, safflower, canola and other oils. These are blended, filtered, just about flavorless and with high smoke points so that they can be used for all kinds of cooking.

We also use olive oil and canola in our cooking. These healthful oils are monounsaturated, so do not contribute to plaque buildups in our arteries but instead lower cholesterol. Olive oil has a relatively low smoke point, so it cannot be used for recipes where the oil must achieve very high temperatures. Both olive oil and canola oil are great for marinades, uncooked sauces and salad dressings.

Butter is the solid fat of choice for most home bakers, although margarine is popular, too. Butter can be cut into pieces and added to recipes to help achieve a smooth consistency, and it can also be creamed with sugar and eggs to form the basis for a cake or cookie batter.

Good and Bad Fats

We all know there are “good fats” and “bad fats” but are not always 100 percent certain what they are.

As a general rule, oils are more healthful than solid fats. Tropical oils, such as coconut and palm oil, are exceptions, as they are saturated fats.

Canola and olive oil are monounsaturated oils and as such are considered the most healthful. Other healthful oils are safflower and sunflower, both of which are high in polyunsaturated fats.

Butter and lard are animal fats and therefore are sources of saturated fats, which contribute to high cholesterol levels and thus to heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. There is no doubt that these fats are necessary for some preparations and have a place in the kitchen, but the key is to use them sparingly and rarely.

Margarine and vegetable shortening (think Crisco) are often substituted for butter and usually do a good job. We used to think both were preferable to butter in terms of health, but the fact that they are hydrogenated vegetable oil means both contain trans fats, which are saturated fats.

Margarine manufacturers recognize this reality and now produce margarine that is non-hydrogenated and contains no trans fats. This margarine is softer than earlier versions, and spreads very easily. >

Storing Fats

Solid fats such as butter and lard should be refrigerated or frozen until ready to use. Oils should be stored in glass bottles in dark, cool cupboards. Delicate nuts oils should be refrigerated once they are opened to avoid rancidity.

Remember that heat, light and moisture are enemies of oil and store them where there is little of any.

Most nutrition and health experts recommend not getting more than 30 percent of our daily calories from fat — and many folks consume a lot less. No more than a third of our daily fat intake should be from saturated fats, and if you can avoid these, do so. Try to get most of your fat from monounsaturated oils.

If you like olive oil, this is not a problem!