The fats and oils we use in the kitchen are all made up of fatty acids, namely saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. The fatty acids within a fat determines whether it is liquid or solid at room temperature, its smoking point properties, how it should be stored, as well as its health benefits. Read on to find out more about these different fats and which ones to use in your kitchen!
Without getting too technical, here is a short explanation: saturation refers to the extent of double bonds between carbon atoms withing the chemical structure of the fatty acid. Monounsaturated fatty acids have only one double bond (the remaining are single bonds), polyunsaturated have more than one double bond, and saturated fats have zero double bonds.
In general, fats with a higher percentage of saturated fats are considered less healthy than those with a higher amount of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats are well-known for their ability to lower cholesterol and protect against heart disease. However, just because an oil is healthy (like olive oil) doesn’t mean it’s suitable for all types of cooking. Your method will determine the type of fat you use and this is all due to a fat’s smoking point.
At certain high temperatures, most fats will start to break down. The temperature where this occurs (you will see smoky fumes) is called the smoking point. When cooking, you never want to reach to smoking point, for several reasons. Not only are the gaseous fumes unpleasant, the breakdown of the fats could also create free fatty acids which will ruin the flavor of your food. So, for the frying of foods, you need an oil with a high smoke point, while those with a low smoking point (like olive oil) are suitable for dressing salads. But which ones are best to use in the kitchen?
Butter is high in saturated fat, with a smoking point of 175°C (350°F). It’s not suitable for frying, but can be used for sautéing over moderate temperatures. You can also use butter in mashed potatoes (add before the dairy and allow it to melt first) or for finishing off a dish – add butter right at the end of the cooking process to create a velvety sauce.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter. When butter is heated, it starts to separate into liquid and milk solids. The milk solids are removed, and what remains is called the ‘ghee’. It’s a useful cooking fat, with a very high smoking point of 250°C (480°F). This means it’s suitable for sautéing, roasting, and even frying! Because it contains less milk proteins than butter, it’s also better suited for those with lactose intolerance.
This fat has gained a lot of publicity lately, especially in the light of keto diets. It’s higher in saturated fats than butter, and has a smoking point of 175°C (350°F). Even though there are similarities to butter, many choose coconut oil because of the type of saturated fats in coconut oil. Unlike butter, the type of saturated fats in coconut oil is made of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), which is said to be healthier. Experts are not agreeing on this point, however, so they suggest that you use it sparingly for sautéing.
Olive oil consists mainly of monounsaturated fats and has a low smoking point of 160°C (320°F). Because of this, it’s not suitable for frying, as it could impart bad flavors to your food. While you can use plain olive oil for grilling, sautéing, and baking, it’s best to use extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings and marinades.
Canola (rapeseed) oil
Canola oil consists mostly of monounsaturated fats, but actually has more polyunsaturated fats than all the other cooking oils. It has a higher smoking point that olive oil, namely 205°C (400°F), and also has a neutral flavor, making it a great choice for frying and baking.