Module two is a third of the way over. This week we’ve had our occasional “culinary cram” period, where we’ve got a paper and test back to back. We’ve really kicked things up a notch in this mod (or as chef would say, “Kicked it in the rear”), moving away from prep, prep and more prep, and into actually cooking over real live flames. Saute, pan-fry, deep fry, grill and roast – we are now, if not masters, at the very least well informed of these dry-heat domains. And after tonight’s test, on to wet heat applications we will go.
Last night, while we were applying painstaking focus and determination to the brunoise potato we were supposed to be producing, Chef walked among us. ”Very nice job on your papers,” she announced. Then she walked right up next to me, peering down at my brunoise and then fixing me with her usual quizzical expression.
“And you!” she exclaimed. “I had to laugh!” I dropped my knife and looked up at her frowning, not sure to what she could be referring. “Very nice job, but you started out by writing, ‘I wasn’t too excited for this paper…’ HA! This was a lot more interesting than you last paper about reference books!”
Ah. I grinned and shrugged. “I’m just not a huge fan of frying, Chef.”
She smiled and nodded, “Ah well. Neither am I, really.” And I got back to my potato.
Our most recent paper in school assigned us to dive head first into the wonderful world of fats and oils, and talk about smoke points, ideal oil types for various high-heat cooking methods, and more. But as I mentioned last week right before I totally contradicted myself and imparted on you a ridiculously fine recipe for Buttermilk Tarragon Fried Chicken, I have a tasteful disdain for frying.
When I expressed this concern to my classmates after one particularly grease-spattered class in the locker room (yes, girls locker-r0om chit-chat looks nothing like men’s), someone suggested that I try to find out what the healthiest oils to cook with are, and write about that. I instantly loved this idea – I thought it was challenging and more outside the standard “canola and corn oil” box, so I ran with it.
I have mixed feelings about what I would up learning. I guess I expected a miraculous discovery that there was a way to make fried foods healthy by using some magical mystery oil. Disappointingly, I found that no such oil exists. But I did learn a lot about a few different oils that I rarely cook with, like Sesame, Grape Seed, and Rice Bran (just wait)! The paper also required us to nail down the specifics on techniques like sauteing and pan-frying, which is pretty useful information for any home cook. So while perhaps a bit more academic than most of my blog posts, I hope readers will find these highlights instructional and somewhat demystifying to the art of sauteing and pan-frying with various types of oil.
As a reference point for this research, I looked into what the national heath recommendations were for fat consumption, as a baseline for what I might consider “healthy.” What I discovered was a wealth of information on the necessity and health benefits of fats. As a preface to an in-depth discussion of using fats in dry-cooking methods, I found the following information to be of interest in setting the stage:
From the American Heart Association: “Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy and to support cell growth. They also help protect your organs and help keep your body warm. Fats help your body absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones, too. The recommended average daily intake of fat should be between 25% to 35% of your total caloric intake. This fat intake should consist of balanced fat, which provides nutrients that are essential to sustain life. A balanced fat intake should contain approximately 30% saturated fat, 33% poly-unsaturated fat, (containing Essential Fatty Acids) and 37% mono-unsaturated fat.”
- Method 1: Sautéing -
Sautéing is a method of cooking food that uses a small amount of fat in a shallow pan over relatively high heat. Before sautéing, ingredients are usually cut into uniformly sized pieces or thinly sliced to facilitate fast and even cooking. Food that is sautéed is browned while preserving its texture, moisture and flavor. Often the sauté may begin on the stove top, where food is browned on both sides, and finished in the oven to gently cook the food (usually meat, in this case) through. If meat, chicken, or fish is sautéed, the sauté is often finished by deglazing the pan’s residue (also known as fond) to make a sauce using a bit of shallot, wine or acid, and stock.
Sautéing is often confused with other dry cooking techniques, such as searing, which browns the surface of a meat to seal in the moisture but does not complete the cooking process, or pan-frying, in which pieces of food are typically cooked in enough oil to reach almost halfway up the ingredient being cooked. When sautéing, a cook should start by preheating a dry pan over medium-high heat to uniformly heat the pan. Right before cooking, enough fat should be added to just cover the bottom of the sauté pan, and the fat should be heated through for a moment or two. Food should be added to the sauté pan once the fat is hot, but not smoking.
- Olive Oil –
Olive oil is an ideal choice for a heart healthy sauté for a variety of reasons. Overall, olive oil is a great fat to sauté in because sautés are usually done at around 350 degrees F, which is just below olive oil’s smoke point of 360 degrees F. While this low smoke point makes olive oil a poor choice for other cooking methods, like frying, that require a slightly higher oil temperature, it makes it a nice fit for sautéing.
Olive oil is high in mono-unsaturated or “good” fats; olive oil is 77% mono-unsaturated fat, and only 9% poly-unsaturated fat and 14% saturated fat, making it one of the healthiest choices to cook with. High levels of mono fat have the ability to lower cholesterol, while the low level of poly fat does provide some Essential Fatty Acids, like Vitamin E Tocopherol, which are essential to life as every metabolic process in your body depends on them.
- Sesame Oil –
Sesame oil is another great choice for sautéing, and is in fact one of the most commonly used oils used in preparing Asian stir-fry dishes, which use the stir-fry method, one that is very similar to sautéing. What makes sesame oil an ideal match for sautéing is once again, the smoke point. Unrefined sesame oil, which would ideally be used because unrefined sesame oil has naturally intense flavor characteristics and a higher level of micro-nutrients than the refined alternative, has a smoke point of 350 degrees F, which makes it usable for a gentle sauté. Alternatively, refined sesame oil can be used for frying as well as sautéing, as its smoke point is 450 degrees F.
In terms of health benefits, Sesame oil is also chock full of vitamin E, an anti-oxidant that helps lower cholesterol. Sesame oil also contains magnesium, copper, calcium, iron and vitamin B6.
- Method 2: Pan-Frying –
Pan-frying is a method of cooking food that uses a moderate amount of fat and moderate to medium high heat. The food product being cooked is partially submerged (one-third to one-half way up the product) in the fat. Items being pan-fried should be cut to portion size and tender in nature, as the fast cooking process will not tenderize a tough cut of meat or other food product.
Items that are pan-fried are generally coated in either flour or batter, or passed through the standard breading procedure before being pan-fried. The benefits of pan-frying are largely visual and flavor related; this cooking method provides even color development, a protective crust around the food that locks in moisture, and an appealing crisp exterior that is expected in many types of fried foods.
Oils that work best for pan-frying are those that have a high smoke point and a mild, neutral flavor. Traditionally vegetable, peanut, soy and corn oils are used in frying, especially deep-frying, but there are a few other oils that offer potential health benefits and can be used successfully in pan-frying foods.
- Rice Bran Oil -
One such option is rice bran oil, the oil extracted from the germ and inner husk of rice. It is a popular cooking oil in several Asian countries, including Japan and China. While I’ve personally never cooked with this oil, I was instantly intrigued by the research I came across regarding the oil and its redeeming qualities. Rice Bran Oil is one of the most balanced and versatile cooking oils on the market, and comes closer than any other oils to the AHA recommendations (see Appendix: Exhibit 1). Rice bran oil is a superior pan-frying oil because it has no distinctive, strong flavor and leaves no lingering after taste. The high smoke point of 490 degrees F makes this oil able to withstand the high temperatures required for pan-frying.
Unlike many other oils that contain healthy anti-oxidants and fatty acids, the high smoke point of Rice Bran oil prevents fatty acid breakdown at high temperatures, allowing this oil to retain its beneficial properties even at a high cooking temperature. Furthermore, its light viscosity allows less oil to be absorbed in cooking, reducing overall calories in the finished food product.
- Grape Seed Oil -
Grape Seed Oil is also a great oil for pan-frying as it has a moderately high smoke point of approximately 420 degrees F, so it can withstand the hotter temperatures of pan-frying. It also has a very light taste, which is ideal for pan-frying as it will cook and crisp the food without imparting a distinct flavor.
In terms of health benefits, Grape Seed Oil is high in unsaturated fat content and therefore believed to lower cholesterol. Grape seeds also contain antioxidants and other biologically active compounds, but unfortunately the cold-pressed grape seed oil contains negligible amounts due to their insolubility in lipids. Grape seed oil is also way over the recommended 33% of poly-unsaturated fat. In summation, while grape seed oil might provide a slightly smarter choice for pan-frying than some other oils because of its potential to lower cholesterol, it is by no means a “health food.”