By Gregory Furgala
There’s no shortage of cooking fats out there, and not all of them are created equal. Performance varies from application to application, and switching to one for its health benefits may mean losing another feature, like a neutral flavour profile. Gently whisper “sear” near some, and you’ll be met with billows of smoke. Others, meanwhile, can get scaldingly hot without letting off so much as a little puff.
The compositions of popular cooking fats vary wildly from one to the next, but are always composed of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. According to Health Canada, people should be particularly aware of their intake of saturated fat and trans fat, a pernicious type of unsaturated fat. Both raise LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) while trans fat simultaneously lowers HDL cholesterol (the good stuff). Unsaturated fat is, by and large, the good stuff, lowering LDL cholesterol and the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol. Since health has become a top-of-mind issue for Canadian consumers, being mindful of what you use where could potentially be a key differentiator between your foodservice operation and the one across the street.
It can be confusing, but re-evaluating what cooking oils to use when can help shake up your kitchen for the better and healthier. Take a look at our breakdown of some cooking fats to decide what fits your operation best. Some, like canola oil and olive oil, will always be top-of-mind, while others, like avocado oil and duck fat, are enjoying newfound popularity.
When refined, canola oil has a neutral flavour profile and high enough smoke point for deep frying, making it a flexible kitchen staple. It’s also surprisingly healthy given its high level of unsaturated fat — something too few operators are touting despite the ubiquity of the stuff. Recently, unrefined canola oils have gained traction in restaurants and found space next to premium olive oils, although their lower smoke point limits their utility. In 2003, Michael Allemeier, who has since earned his certified master chef accreditation, called canola “the olive oil of the north.”
Lynchpin of the Mediterranean diet and notably healthy due to its high monounsaturated fat content, olive oil is easily one of the popular cooking oils in North America. Make sure you’re getting the right stuff, though. Nearly a third of the samples of olive oil tested in 2012 and 2013 by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency were adulterated with vegetable oil, refined olive oil, which is stripped of the characteristics that make olive oil so desirable, and olive pomace oil. If the price of your olive oil is too good to be true, it probably is.
Like olive oil, refined avocado oil is particularly high in monounsaturated fat. Unlike olive oil, however, its blisteringly high smoke point makes it suitable for everything from high heat cooking to vinaigrettes. And if you haven’t noticed, avocados are also having something of a moment in popular food culture, so featuring avocado oil on your menu could benefit from the movement.
Its high smoke point makes it perfect for high heat cooking and deep frying — American quick-service chain Five Guys famously uses it for its fries — and its powerful, peanutty flavour complement some dishes particularly well, particularly in the South Asian, Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine. It tends to go rancid a bit faster than other oils, though, so it’s best bought in small quantities or used in large.
While it packs a decent monounsaturated punch, duck fat is also much higher in saturated fat than other oils on this list, making it more stable at high temperature. It’s also extremely flavourful, lending a rich, savoury taste and crisp texture to anything deep fried. It’s also widely available now as well, enabling chefs forego a long search or the time-consuming process of rendering it themselves.
Of the fats listed here, coconut oil is the highest in saturated fat, making it solid at room temperature. While not idea for raw applications, it does perform similarly to butter, and can be creamed with sugar when it comes to baking — a good alternative when making vegan treats. Refined coconut oils are nearly flavourless, while unrefined oils can be intensely flavourful and complement any number of dishes or baked goods.