by  Karlene  Karst, R.D.

Healthful Oils for Cooking and Garnishing

The A to Z of Cooking with Fats and Oils

One of the most important considerations is how to use healthful oils to maximize their goodness. Despite the multitude of oils currently on the market, unfortunately, a one-size-fits-all policy does not apply to any one cooking oil. When you can, buy organic, expeller-pressed, unrefined oils and store them properly (I cover the storage of oils in more detail at the end of this chapter). Fats and oils have different properties, such as smoke point, taste, and fatty-acid profile, making each individual fat and oil suitable for different cooking applications.



Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a heavy oil that is colorless when heated (white at room temperature) with a slight hint of coconut flavor. Despite its high levels of saturated fats, the health benefits of this wonder oil have been well established. Coconut oil has been shown to exert beneficial effects on heart health, increase metabolism and weight loss, and boost your immune system, to name a few.

Smoke Point: 350°F / 177°C

Best Applications: Coconut oil can be used for medium-high-heat cooking and is especially great when used to cook pancakes, saute veggies, and cook fish, especially halibut and shrimp. Coconut oil is also used in baking and as a "better butter" spread on toast and muffins (please see page 10 in chapter 1 for the recipe). It's also great on popcorn!

The Truth about Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has quickly become one of my favorite fats, which is why I feel it deserves a bit more attention in this chapter. I started applying it liberally to my "baby bump" when I was pregnant with my first son. It is such a soothing and moisturizing fat, and I believe it helped to nourish and protect my skin from stretch marks. I especially love the coconut-based body care line Fiji Organics. This was also the time when I started to incorporate coconut oil into my cooking, and my kids know that when the coconut oil comes out first thing in the morning, they are getting homemade whole-wheat waffles. Coconut oil is also delicious to use when cooking halibut or other white fish …. and stir-fried Asian veggies, and as a topping for popcorn. My new cookbook, The Full-Fat Solution Recipe Book, uses coconut oil in many of the recipes.

In many parts of the world, the coconut tree and its products have for centuries been an integral part of life, and it has come to be called the "Tree of Life." However, in the last few decades, the relationship between coconut fats and health has been the subject of much debate and misinformation. Unfortunately, coconut oil has been wrongly branded as a nutritional evil for many years. As previously mentioned, it is a medium-chain fat that is easily digested and used by the body. In short, whereas other fats are stored in the body's cells, the medium-chain fats in coconut oil are sent directly to the liver, where they are immediately converted into energy. So, when you eat coconut oil, your body uses it immediately to make energy rather than store it as body fat. Because this quick-and-easy absorption puts less strain on the pancreas, liver, and digestive system, coconut oil heats up the metabolic system. Dr. Joseph Mercola suggests that since coconut oil actually speeds up metabolism, your body will burn more calories in a day—this will contribute to weight loss, and you'll have more energy.

Experts in the field of fat and nutrition show that virgin coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, a proven antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal agent that is very beneficial in attacking viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens and builds the body's immune system.

In the 1960s, data collected from research was misinterpreted, concluding that coconut oil raised blood cholesterol levels. In fact, it was the omission of essential fatty acids in the diet that caused the observed health problems, not the inclusion of the coconut oil. More recently, subject groups studied in the South Pacific for their regular use of coconut oil in the diet exhibited low incidences of coronary artery disease and low serum cholesterol levels.9 A study in Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2011 reviewed the beneficial lipid effects in 1,839 premenopausal women in the Philippines. The researchers found that dietary coconut oil intake was positively associated with high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, especially among premenopausal women, suggesting that coconut oil intake is associated with beneficial lipid profiles. It was not significantly associated with low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol or triglyceride values.10 Little or no change is evident in cholesterol levels when an EFA-rich diet contains nonhydrogenated saturated fats. Coconut oil is naturally saturated, so it does not need to go through hydrogenation.

How to Store Good Oils

Healthful oils are essenrial to our health, but they are more temperamental than the inferior oils you see on the supermarket shelves. Light, air, and heat can destroy them. Nature packages these oils in seeds, and left intact, these oils will sometimes keep for years without spoiling.

When we extract the oil from such seeds, we need to make sure the oil is shielded from the destructive elements before pressing and until the oil is opened. Special care needs to be taken in processing, packaging, and storing oils rich in essential fats to prevent the oil from turning rancid. Rancid oil has a scratchy, bitter, fishy, or paint-like taste, and may be accompanied by a characteristic unpleasant smell. When oil has turned rancid, dozens of by-products form, with toxic or unknown effects on our bodies' functions. In fact, rancid oils, if consumed, have been associated with negative health effects such as arterial damage, inflammation, certain forms of cancer, and premature aging. It is, therefore, imperative that cooking oils are properly stored to minimize exposure to these negative factors. Below are general guidelines to maximize shelf life and overall quality of your cooking fats and oils:

Choose fresh EFA-rich oils that have been pressed and packaged in the dark, in the absence of oxygen, and with minimal heat, and packaged in opaque bottles.

At home, once you have opened a bottle of good oil, it should be stored in the refrigerator to protect it from turning rancid. 

Refrigerated oils will generally turn cloudy when cold; however, simply remove the oil an hour or two prior to use and it will return to its original liquid state. 

If refrigeration is not possible, store all oils in a cool-cold, dry, dark place (not a warm pantry!).

Prior to opening, the oil is safe in a bottle on a shelf at room temperature; this is because during the packaging process, the oil was packaged in the absence of the destructive elements and then sealed tightly.

Be sure to keep your healthful oils away from the stove, and do not leave them on top of the fridge or microwave.

With regards to butter, store unused portions in the freezer as butter will maintain its quality only for approximately two weeks in the refrigerator.

Keep in mind that darker-colored oils will go rancid more quickly than lighter-colored oils.

Unrefined oils will generally keep for three to six months once opened if properly stored in a cool, dark location.

Refined oils will keep twice as long as unrefined oils— generally six to twelve months once opened when stored in a cool, dark location.

Oils high in polyunsaturated fats have a shorter shelf life than oils high in monounsaturated or saturated fats.

Unopened cooking oils generally have a shelf life of one year if properly stored in a cool, dark, dry place.

There are many quality brands in both Canada and the United States that have been pressed and packaged using these exacting procedures. (Please see the resources section on page 193.)

What You Have Learned in This Chapter

Not all oils are created equally. When selecting an oil, consider the application and smoke point.

Coconut oil is an excellent option for cooking and body care.

How to store good oils to keep them fresh and preserve their quality.