I’m often asked about healthy fats – and how they can be appropriately used and while I’ve written on the subject of healthy fats before, it never hurts to revisit the topic. In my kitchen, I use a wide variety of fats and oils – some of which I use exclusively for cooking while others I use exclusively as finishing oils.
In our home, I focus exclusively on traditional foods - the foods that nourished our ancestors prior to the industrial revolution of the 19th century and the green revolution of the mid-20th century. As such, I naturally exclude any fat or oil that wouldn’t have been available two-hundred years ago or that is produced through industrialized processes like hexane-extraction, genetic modification, or hydrogenization. We’re talking real food here, folks.
I avoid many of the darlings of the health food industry: grapeseed oil, canola oil and rice bran oil for these oils, despite relatively high smoke points, are not traditional fats. Instead, when I choose my fats, I choose those which offer true nourishment in the way of fat soluble vitamins and naturally-occurring antioxidants. Further, I treat the oils with respect – honoring their flavors, their smoke points and how they function in dishes and for our bodies.
So, when choosing your fats and oils, ask your self how is it produced? Is it minimally processed? Would your great-great-great grandmother have recognized it? Does it offer nourishment beyond fat and calories? Can you taste the olives in your olive oil? Can you smell the cream in your butter? Good. Can you smell the canola in canola oil? Taste the grapeseed in grapeseed oil? Yep. Didn’t think so.
My favorite fats for cooking:
Grass-fed Butter, Clarified Butter & Ghee: Butter offers a soft flavor – sweet and comforting, and it’s this beautiful fat that froths as it melts in the pan and conveys a gentle and old-fashioned creaminess to your recipes. Butter and clarified butters shine in dishes like sole meuniere or traditional chicken liver pates. Butter, like most highly-saturated fats, has gotten a bad rap as industrial oils have usurped butter’s rightful place at the kitchen table, but grass-fed butter provides deep nourishment and it was once prized as a sacred food.
When produced from the cream of grass-fed cows, butter is extraordinarily rich in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K2; further, it is a rich source of the antioxidant beta carotene which accounts for its rich golden color. And in the beautiful synchronicity of nature, beta carotene, like many antioxidants, is best absorbed when paired with fat (read more about why you should butter your vegetables).
Due to the presence of milk solids including casein and lactose, butter has a low smoke point of about 350 degrees Fahrenheit and is therefore suitable to gentle cooking. Clarified butter and ghee, however, have been slowly melted and then filtered to remove these milk solids. The resultant fat is free from offending proteins and sugars and is often well-tolerated by those suffering from dairy sensitivities. Further, after the removal of the milk solids, clarified butter and ghee can tolerate higher heats up to 485 degrees Fahrenheit.
You can purchase grass-fed butter in most well-stocked grocery stores and health food stores by looking for brands such as Lurpak, Smjor, Kerrygold and Organic Valley pastured butter which is packaged in green foil. You can also purchase grass-fed ghee and clarified butter online (see sources).
Virgin Coconut Oil: Mildly sweet with a fragrance deeply resonant of the tropics, unrefined extra virgin coconut oil provides a beautiful and almost mysterious hint of flavor to soups and vegetable dishes. It pairs particularly well with pulses in dishes like curried lentil soup and spices for treats like Mayan chocolate truffles, and when combined with honey and vanilla bean it makes a good glaze for treats like coconut flour cake or sprouted grain doughnuts.
Coconut oil is enjoying a bit of a revival after decades of banishment due to its saturated fat content. It is particularly rich in lauric acid, a nourishing fat only otherwise found in abundance in human breast milk. Lauric acid is known as an immune booster. Further, coconut oil plays an enormous role in the traditional diets of South Pacific islanders who enjoyed resilient health prior to the wide-spread availability of processed foods, sugars and industrial vegetable oils.
With a smoke point of about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, unrefined extra virgin coconut oil is suited to baking and light sauteing.
You can purchase unrefined extra virgin olive oil in most well-stocked health food stores which carry brands like Spectrum and Nutiva; however, you can often purchase in bulk online for a better cost. Some companies sell a combination of both ghee and coconut oil together which is particularly well-suited to baking.
Pastured Lard & Bacon Fat: Of all the saturated fats, lard is still the most-reviled – and this despite the fact that monounsaturated fat, the same fat that makes olive oil and avocados so healthy, is the primary fatty acid in lard comprising about 40-45% of the fat content. The remaining 55-60% is a combination of saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. It’s unfortunate too that while the masses clamor to coconut oil and butter, they leave lard behind for it is a lovely fat, mild in flavor with excellent applications in baking as well as braising meats and vegetables.
Lard is also a potently rich source of vitamin D, second only to cod liver oil; that is, if it has been rendered from the fat of pasture-raised hogs. Hogs, like humans and unlike cows, are monogastric animals and they manufacture vitamin D in their skin which makes their fat extraordinarily rich in this fat-soluble vitamin. By some calculations up to 70% of the US population is suffering from insufficient and deficient levels of this vitamin as sunlight alone is typically not adequate in replenishing vitamin D stores and some should be consumed in the diet. The inclusion of pastured lard as well as supplementary cod liver oil and the eating of oily fish helps to ensure you get plenty vitamin D which is essential for proper immune system function, cognitive health, regulation of inflammation, calcium absorption and overall systemic wellness.
Pastured lard is excellent for baking, braising and light sauteing. Bacon fat, due to its smoky and unique flavor, is best left to dishes where that flavor becomes an attribute – lentil stews and bean soups, for instance. Lard has a smoke point of about 370 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pasture-raised lard is not widely available unless you live in real food meccas like San Francisco. The lard sold in most grocery stores is not a suitable substitute as much of it is partially hydrogenated and almost all of it is produced from hogs raised in confinement, without access to the sun which means the lard would not offer the added benefit of vitamin D. If you’ve the desire, I recommend asking your local rancher for pork fat or leaf lard which you then render at home. You can learn how to render lard in this tutorial.
My favorite fats for finishing dishes:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: A good olive oil has flavor – it is grassy or fruity or faintly dusty; it is not, however, the flavorless and near-colorless liquids you find in most grocery stores. A good olive oil can elevate a dish beyond comparison and truly give it new life. Consider a crusty hunk of whole-grain, slow-rise sourdough bread dipped into a freshly pressed olive oil with its soft floral flavor and peppery notes. Or think of how how just a simple combination of good olive oil and fresh lemon can elevate a plate full of greens from the mundane to the lively.
When olive oil became the shining star of heart-smart health due to its monounsaturated fatty acid content, it became the first choice for cooking. And while it can be used for light cooking due to its monounsaturated fatty acid content, it is better suited to use as a finishing oil. Unrefined extra virgin olive oil is extraordinarily rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants as well as vitamin E – all of which are extremely heat-sensitive, meaning that by cooking with your olive oil you’re negating many of its potential benefits. So despite extra virgin olive oil’s relatively high smoke point of 375 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s best to use this particular fat as a finishing oil where its complex flavors can shine; one such dish is tomatoes provencale.
While extra virgin olive oil can be purchased in grocery stores around the country, finding unfiltered and unrefined extra virgin olive oil is a challenge. Further, the practices of unscrupulous middlemen means that the olive oil you pay for in the grocery store may not actually be 100% olive oil. Watchdog groups have found that many of the commercially available olive oils sold in grocery stores have been cut with less expensive oils such as canola oil. I purchase my unrefined extra virgin olive oil online direct from farms I know and trust and who have unsurpassably beautiful oil (see sources). I recently purchased four gallons of olive oil two from the late harvest and two from the mid-harvest.
Walnut, Pumpkin Seed, Sesame Seed & Hazelnut Oils: Cold-pressed nut and seed oils also make it to our kitchen, though not as frequently as unrefined extra virgin olive oil. Nut and seed oils are typically high in omega-6 fatty acids which may be difficult to balance out even with a diet rich in wild-caught fish. For this reason, I use them only minimally and as a finishing oil.
Like olive oil, cold-pressed nut and seed oils are relatively high in vitamin E which supports cardiovascular health and acts as an antioxidant, effectively working to neutralize free radicals. I like to drizzle these oils over salads – consider a rocket salad with roasted pears and fresh raspberries drizzled with hazelnut oil (oh my!) and over cooked vegetables.
You can typically find cold-pressed nut and seed oils in high-end grocery stores as well as online, but they tend to be expensive which is another reason to minimize their use.
Raw Butter: Raw butter offers all the benefits of butter and clarified butter listed above – high content of fat-soluble vitamins, rich in conjugated linoleic acid etc., but with the added benefit of food enzymes and beneficial bacteria. Much like raw milk and raw cream, raw butter is extraordinarily rich in fat soluble vitamins and is a good source of beta carotene, but it also offers food enzymes such as lipase and lactase which help to digest and breakdown fat and sugars as well as beneficial bacteria which help to populate the gut, ease digestion, boost the immune system and actually manufacture vitamins in the intestines.
Further, many of butter’s naturally occurring nutrients are heat-sensitive such as the Wulzen factor. The Wulzen factor was discovered by researcher Rosalind Wulzen. It is found in raw animal fats, like raw butter, and some research suggests that it can reduce joint stiffness and address issues that arise with age such as degenerative arthritic conditions and cataracts.
To maintain its benefits, we use raw butter as a finishing fat. That is, we serve it spread atop slices of bread or in pats on steamed or roasted vegetables.
Raw butter is difficult to find, particularly in the United States. Some raw milk producers and herd share operations offer raw butter to their customers and herd shareowners; however, most don’t. You can make your own raw butter from fresh raw cream if you cannot purchase it locally. You can find local raw milk producers online as well by asking at local farmer's markets.
Odds, Ends & Supplementary Fats:
Cod Liver Oil / High Vitamin Butter Oil: Supplementary to our diet, we consume cod liver oil which differs from most cod liver oils on the market in that it retains its naturally occurring vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin D – two essential nutrients that help to boost immunity, support cognitive and reproductive health and provide for overall wellness. It is also an extraordinarily rich source of omega-3 fatty acids which goes a long way to ensuring that our diet includes the proper portions of omega-6 fatty acids, found in nuts, seeds and grains, and omega-3 fatty acids.
We also consume high vitamin butter oil, which is a concentrated source of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2 and includes added benefits like the Wulzen factor. When notable nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston A Price, who penned the landmark book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, administered cod liver oil to his patients, he always did so in conjunction with high vitamin butter oil.
While cod liver oil is available in most health food stores and supplement warehouses, these usually are produced in a non-traditional method that can damage the sensitive omega-3 fatty acids; moreover, synthetic vitamins are typically added back to the oil to make up for the loss of nutrients due to the processing mechanism. This is why I purchase cod liver oil and high vitamin butter oil with all their naturally occurring vitamins still intact.