How to Properly Cook With Oils

One Methods:Some Common Fats

Different cooking oils and fats possess different properties - flavor, viscosity, melting point, chemical reactivity, and others - that make them better for different tasks. This article presents some background information on fats and cooking, allowing the reader to use a simple procedure by which to select the best fat for a job.


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    Learn the characteristics of fats. Fats come to us from many sources - animal and plant - and thus can have very different properties. Luckily, when cooking, only a few are important:
    • Flavor. Though the fats themselves are generally odorless, they carry with them a variety of chemicals (or lack of them) that can vary between the strong flavor of unrefined palm oil to the bland flavor of canola oil, or from the subtly sweet flavor of coconut oil to the grassy richness of a good quality tallow. Unfortunately, flavor is a terribly subjective (and complicated) beast, and so it is impossible to properly discuss it here.
    • Viscosity. A measure of how "thick", or liquid, the fat is when melted, it is important to the ability of fats to prevent foods from sticking to pans, and changes how the food feels in the mouth. It is primarily affected by how big each molecule of fat is, expressed as the chain length: long chain lengths mean high viscosity oils which flow slowly and coat surfaces thickly.
    • Melting Point. The temperature that the fat melts at. This is important if the dish is to be served (or prepared) cold, or if the melting point is higher than the temperature of the mouth: if the fat solidifies, the food feels greasy, and many sauces and dressings break. Melting point is influenced by the percentage of saturated fat and how big the average chain length is: saturated fats and long chain lengths give us fats with high melting points.
    • Smoke Point. Different oils will begin to smoke at different temperatures.
    • Chemical Reactivity. Fats can be oxidized by the air, especially at high temperatures, which damages flavor and is bad for health. For these reasons, this article suggests not cooking with (poly)unsaturated oils, which are more reactive than other fats, at high temperatures or for long periods of time.
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    Know the cooking method you are going to use and select the fat accordingly. In different foods and cooking methods, the role of any included fat varies, and thus your selection criteria will be different:
    • Pan-Frying, Stir-Fry, Sauteing. Other than flavor, the most important considerations are viscosity and reactivity; ideally, you will choose a viscous fat (to prevent the food from sticking and burning) which is highly saturated (so that it doesn't oxidize). It is also important to pick a fat which will not smoke at the high temperatures involved.
    • Deep Frying is rather forgiving, but prefers a nonreactive oil (so that it doesn't oxidize). Depending on preference, you may want to use a viscous oil (which will coat the fried food thickly), or a thin oil, to minimize the fat content of the cooked food.
    • Hot Soups and mixed into Baked goods, only the flavor matters.
    • Applied to the outside of baked goods, flavor still usually dominates, but reactivity is a potential consideration, due to the high surface temperatures.
    • Salad Dressings, Mayonnaise. It is vital that the food stay warmer than the melting point of the fat, or the emulsion will break, leaving you with two nasty layers rather than a creamy sauce.
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    Determine the important characteristics for your cooking method. An incomplete list is provided above, but feel free to apply these basic criteria:
    • If your food sticks, use a more viscous fat.
    • If your oil smokes, use a fat with a higher smoke point.
    • If you are cooking at a high temperature and/or for a long time, use a nonreactive (saturated) fat.
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    Find a fat with the properties you need. Often, you'll need to make a compromise, in which case there are a few options:
    • Mix different fats together to average their properties. For instance, mix some tallow into your coconut oil to increase the viscosity while still keeping the fat mixture liquid in the mouth.
    • Add your flavorful, but delicate or reactive, fats after most of the cooking is done.

Some Common Fats

  • Canola oil. Canola oil is a popular oil, due to it's low cost and very mild flavor. It has a very low melting point, an average smoke point, slightly lower than average viscosity, and fairly high reactivity.
  • Coconut Oil, Extra Virgin. With a sweet and, well, coco-nutty taste, it has a melting point just below that of butter, an average smoke point, slightly lower than average viscosity, and very low reactivity.
    • In lower, refined, grades, it has a mild, almost neutral flavor and a slightly higher smoke point.
  • Butter. With a mildly sweet and fragrant flavor, sometimes with grassy notes, butter becomes rich and nutty, then burns at low temperatures relative to other oils. It solidifies around room temperature, has a fairly high viscosity and fairly good reactivity.
    • Ghee retains the viscosity, melting point, and reactivity of butter, but has a fairly high smoke point and a rich, nutty taste.
    • Margarine. Margarine was first introduced as an alternative to high fat butter. As cooking oil, margarine tastes good, it's lower in fat than most oils and butter, and it's quite easy to spread. Even unheated, it may already contain substantial amounts of oxidized fats (or fats with similar health effects).
  • Lard is the rendered fat of pigs, and tastes much like bacon. It has a melting point similar to that of butter, a fairly good smoke point, better than average viscosity, and fairly low reactivity.
  • Olive Oil, Extra Virgin. Olive oil offers a very distinct flavor, which is strongest in the more expensive grades. With a melting point near zero Celsius, it has a fairly low smoke point and reasonably good viscosity, and although the bulk of the oil is reasonably nonreactive, the flavoring compounds are sensitive to heat and are destroyed in high-temperature processes.
    • In lower grades, it has less flavor but a higher smoke point. (and less flavoring compounds to be damaged by heat)
  • Palm Oil, Red, Unrefined. With a strong and unusual taste, a melting point near that of butter, a good smoke point, fairly good viscosity, and a low reactivity, you'll either like it not.
  • Tallow. The rendered fat from animals like cows/sheep/goats, it is a hearty, full bodied fat with grassy overtones. It has a very high melting point (high enough that you may need to alloy it to keep it from solidifying in the mouth), a high smoke point, very high viscosity, and low reactivity.


  • When it comes to cooking with oils, there are several at your disposal. There are many more than what is mentioned here, although the ones above are the most popular.

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Categories: Basic Cooking Skills