Usual healthy oils aren't best choices for hot frying

February 3, 2010 

Let's have a talk about cooking oils. I held a cooking class for fellow members of Zonta of Olympia. This wonderful organization has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for women's and children's causes over the years. However, they like to have a little fun once in awhile, too. That's why they asked me to teach the cooking class.

When it came time to put meat into my electric frying pan, I recommended using a high smoke-point oil. One of the members asked what I meant by that. If an experienced cook was unfamiliar with this term, I realized there might be others who would appreciate the skinny on the subject.

The smoking point of an oil is the temperature at which cooking oil starts to break down and smoke, which can instantly ruin the flavor of a dish. The smoking point temperature can widely vary for cooking oils. Depending upon whom you ask, smoking points can range from somewhere around 350 degrees for butter to 375 degrees for extra virgin olive oil and 485 degrees for ghee (clarified butter). Oils that have a lower smoking point are not advisable for frying foods. Those oils are better for making things such as salad dressings.

A decade or so ago, the term saturated fats came into common usage. Instead of using butter or margarine in our cooking, we were told to turn to canola or olive oil.

Canola is a made up word combining Canada (the source of most of the canola oil sold in the U.S.) with the word oil. It’s made from rapeseed. It has a high smoking point around 475 degrees, but I prefer not to use it for high-heat cooking.

Olive oil is a great oil for salad dressings and for drizzling on top of pastas, pizza and other food to add flavor. However, it breaks down quickly at high heat and should not be used for frying.

I talked to my friend, Rebecca Cody, who is a nutritional counselor, and asked her what she uses for high-heat cooking. She recommends palm kernel oil or ghee (butter with the salt and milk solids removed). Both are available at the Olympia Food Co-op. I also use grapeseed or virgin coconut oil.

Here is a recipe my friend Martin Kimeldorf e-mailed to me. It originally called for two tablespoons of oil, but I find I don’t need this much oil for sautéing. If extra moisture is needed, just add a little water or chicken broth. This recipe for sautéed veggies in a Panko cheese mix is a wonderful side dish. It could even be a main dish with some brown rice on the side and a salad for a light meal. Martin recommends doing all the prep work before beginning.

Sauteed Veggies in a Panko Cheese Mix

1/2 cup onions

2 zucchini

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, chopped

1 tablespoon oil (with a high smoke point)

1 garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon sugar (or sugar substitute)

2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 tablespoons parmesan, shredded

2 tablespoons feta crumbles

1/3 cup Panko crumbs

Chop up an onion into fine pieces to make about a half cup. Cut two zucchini into cubes by trimming off both ends and then cutting in half lengthwise. Cut these halves in half again and then slice the short way into chunks about a quarter-inch thick. Chop up fresh cilantro to make about a tablespoon. If you don’t like cilantro, try fresh basil leaves.

Whether you choose cilantro or basil, to save any leftover stems, trim the ends and put them in a small glass of water and leave on the countertop. They both last much longer in water than in a bag in the fridge. Basil will actually sprout roots in just a few days.

Heat up about a tablespoon of high smoke point oil or ghee in a large sauté pan. Add the onion and sauté for about two minutes. Meanwhile, push a fat garlic clove through your garlic press and add to the pan. Sprinkle in a half teaspoon sugar or sugar substitute.

Stir and cook for another minute or so. Reduce heat to medium. Add the zucchini and two teaspoons dried oregano. Cook for four to six minutes until the zukes soften and begin to brown a little. Add a little water if you want more moisture.

Toss in two tablespoons each of shredded Parmesan and feta cheese crumbles and a third cup of Panko crumbs. Find this product in the Asian aisle of the supermarket. Blend well and serve.

Alternatively, just add the feta cheese to the zucchini mix. Put into an ovenproof dish. Combine the Panko crumbs with the Parmesan cheese and sprinkle on top. Pop it into the oven for 10-15 minutes at 350, just to heat through while you finish any other dishes you plan to serve.

Tip: Martin reckons this dish would be three or four points on the Weight Watchers scale.

Karyn Lindberg has called Olympia home since 1988. She is passionate about cooking and entertaining. She believes good recipes are meant to be shared.

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