Learn when you should use certain fats.
Do you know when to use canola oil instead of butter? Coconut oil instead of avocado oil? Lard instead of schmaltz? Extra virgin instead of “regular” olive oil?
So many choices, my brain hurts. 😣 Does it really matter what fat you use?
Honestly, you really can’t go wrong—except in one case (more on that in a bit). But there are a couple of important things to keep in mind.
So let’s talk about oil you need to know! 😉
By the way, this will only cover fat as it relates to cooking NOT baking. So if you’re interested in what to do for 🧁 or 🥨 or 🥐 or 🥖, this won’t help you. Sorry. 🤷♂️
For some of us, it might as well be a four-letter word. When someone says “fat”, it doesn’t give you good feelings. At least here in the US, we have a diet-crazed culture to thank for that.
But if you’re a serious cook, fat should make you smile. Why?
Fat does three wonderful jobs in the kitchen.
Fat doesn't only bring in its own flavor, it also intensifies and carries flavor. Many spices and herbs are fat-soluble. That means fat brings out their flavor molecules.
America’s Test Kitchen did an experiment where they soaked spices and herbs in water and in oil. And guess what? They found up to 10x more flavor molecules in the oil than in the water. 🤯
Fat also improves the conductivity of a food’s surface. What the heck does that mean? It means it allows the surface to reach higher temperatures. And that's important because effective browning only happens above 300℉ (150℃). Water can’t go above 212℉ (100℃). Fat can. It’s why frying food has a completely different effect than boiling. So for better browning, and therefore more flavor, fat is your friend.
As Harold McGee says in the Keys to Good Cooking, “High heat causes food proteins and carbohydrates to form bonds with the pan surface.” In other words, it sticks to the pan!
But fat acts as a barrier. Pans are full of microscopic cracks and crevices. Fats come in and fill up those crevices preventing food from sticking to the pan.
Health reasons aside, when choosing what type of fat to use, it comes down to three things:
1. Flavor: Some fats bring flavor to a dish. Others are neutral-tasting. So when you’re picking a fat, first decide if you want to taste it. And if you do, decide what flavor you want: creamy, smoky, fruity, nutty, the list goes on! This is especially important when fat is the main ingredient—think pesto, vinaigrettes, or sauces like mayo.
IMPORTANT: The later you add fat, the more prominent the flavor. You’ll really taste olive oil when you drizzle it on pasta right before serving. Why? Heat dulls flavor. When fat is added earlier in the cooking process, its flavor is more subtle. It’s hard to distinguish it. That is unless you’ve got a talented tongue. 👅 This is why I don’t recommend cooking with expensive olive, nut, or truffle oils. Save those for drizzling at the end!
2. Smoke point: All fats start to smoke at a certain temperature and eventually burn. When heated to that smoke point, molecules split causing acrid and bad tasting flavors. Interestingly, it’s the same compound that is released when food is burnt (#NotTheGoodKindofBurnt). Choosing a fat based on your cooking method is the most important thing to consider! You want higher smoke points when charring, frying, searing, or roasting. You can get away with a low smoke point if sauteing or not using any heat.
3. Consistency: Some fats are liquid at room temperature. Others are solid—think butter, coconut oil, or animal fats. If you’re cooking with it and serving a dish piping hot, consistency won’t matter. But if your dish is going to sit out for a while or be served cold, then you may want to use oil.
Quick note: This is by no means inclusive of all types of fats. But I tried to hit on the big ones.
Slightly less quick note: It’s a challenge to nail down universal smoke points for fats. Different sources list different temperatures. From what I can tell, it depends on the quality, how you measure, etc. To simplify it, I grouped the fats into “low”, “medium”, and “high” smoke points.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: An olive oil is extra virgin if it meets strict standards. And it’s never refined, which means it’s got “impurities”. But those impurities are full of flavor! Its low smoke point and high price tag mean I wouldn’t cook with it unless I’m doing a quick saute. I leave EVOO for pestos, salad dressings, hummus, or drizzling at the end to flavor.
Butter: Everybody loves butter! 🧈 It has milk solids that add complex flavors, but they also cause butter to burn easily. That’s why it’s perfect for sauteing or stirred in to add flavor and body. Lastly, remember this. Butter is a solid at room temperature. So unless you want a congealed texture, only use it in dishes served hot!
Coconut Oil: It’s pretty similar to butter. It’s solid at room temperature, and it’s unrefined. So it burns easily. Use it for lower-temperature roasting or sauteing to take advantage of its slightly nutty, sweet flavor. I recommend it for Southeast Asian cuisines.
Sesame Oil: While it may seem like an obvious choice for stir-fry, I’d actually avoid sesame oil there. Why? Most sesame oils are unrefined. So stick to drizzling it on top right before serving so you can taste its wonderful nuttiness.
Animal Fats: Lard, tallow (beef), schmaltz (chicken/goose), duck, bacon fat—the list goes on. They work well for any type of cooking method that doesn't get too hot, like searing. But want to know the best part? They’re incredibly flavorful! If you’re lucky enough to have one of these fats left over, save them! Also, they’re also solid at room temperature. Just an FYI if you don’t trust your eyes. 👀
Nut Oils: Almond, hazelnut, or pistachio oils are rich, nutty, and luxurious! While some of them may have decent smoke points, I wouldn’t cook with them. Why? They’re expensive. 💵 So save these for finishing oils.
Regular Olive Oil (High): The type of olive oil that sleeps around (😉) is typically refined, (aka no impurities). This means it's subtle in flavor and has a high smoke point. It’s a versatile one!
Vegetable Oil (High): Whether it’s canola, grapeseed, or a blend, these neutral-tasting oils are perfect for high-temperature cooking. They’re inexpensive so use them when you need a lot of oil like when frying. And their neutrality means you have more control over the final flavor. Every kitchen needs vegetable oil.
Avocado or Peanut Oil (High): They’re pretty similar fats. Both are good for high-temperature cooking. While not entirely neutral in flavor, they are good universal cooking oils. Also, avocado oil is known for its health benefits, but it can be more expensive.
Ghee (High): Ghee is just butter with the milk solids removed and water cooked off. That means it doesn’t burn as easily, and it has an amazing nutty flavor. Try it in Indian or Middle Eastern food. Or any cuisine really. You won’t regret it! 🙌
Where I learned this: Mostly from this article on smoke points, The New Rules cookbook, Salt Fat Acid Heat, and The Science of Cooking.