Oils & Fats (all lumped as "Fats" by food scientists) are
essential to human nutrition, providing not only energy and a feeling of
"fullness" but transport for many flavors and for a large range of oil
soluble vitamins obtainable no other way, and are even part of cell wall
structure. Oils and Fats can also have very negative effects on
Before the first permanent settlements, nutrient oils came from insects, animals, nuts and grains eaten on a "catch as you can" basis. Nomadic people learned to render fat from animals and how to use it for cooking and to preserve foods with a combination of fat, smoking and sun drying.
Once villages were established the technology of extracting oils by heat and pressure was quickly refined and oils were extracted from oily fruits (olives, mainly, and perhaps sunflower seeds) as well as animals. Properly processed oils and fats could be stored much longer than the perishables they were extracted from and could tide a village over times of food shortage.
Even so, most communities had only a single dominant type of oil and little else. Modern technology and transportation have provided us with a wealth of flavors for a wide choice for different cooking methods and for health. The health part, however, has become highly controversial (see our article Oils, Fats and Health).Varieties
General: Oils and fats are pretty uniform at 120 calories per tablespoon. The only exceptions are semi-solid products sold whipped with a lot of air - fewer calories by the tablespoon but still the same per ounce. The words "Light", "Lite" and similar applied to oils refer to taste, not to calories.
For smoke point and fat type content, refer to our Oils Chart.
Achiote Oil / Lard - see Annatto Oil.
Annatto Oil / Annatto Lard -
[Lara (sp), Achiote Oil / Lard (sp)]
Oil or lard infused with annatto seeds which dye it an intense red-gold color (orange to yellow as thinned) and give it a subtle warm flavor. This oil is important in Cuban, Filipino, Portuguese, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Jamaican Cooking.
You can make it easily by adding 1/2 cup annatto seeds to 1 cup oil
(or 1 cup annatto to 1 cup lard) then heating and stirring over moderate heat
until the desired color is achieved (overheating will cause it to lose its
red color and flavor). Alternately for oil, heat to 350°F, take off heat
and stir in annatto. Continue stirring until foaming stops and desired color
Beef Fat [Suet, Tallow]
Well made tallow can be kept at room temperature much longer than suet without spoiling. This fat was once used to make candles and as a lubricant but today is used mainly to make soap and industrial products, and by "fast food" restaurants as a low cost ingredient. It is also favored as a binder and nutrient in making winter feed blocks for song birds.
Beef fat is, of course, the primary flavoring and moistening agent in
beef, particularly American beef which has been bred and fed to maximize
"marbling". Consequently, fat cannot be largely removed from beef as it can
be from other animal meats because it's shot through the muscle. On the
other hand, the beef is of inferior edibility without it.
Photo by Daniel Schwen distributed under license Creative
Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
Butter / Ghee
Butter is high in saturated fats which cause it to be solid
at normal room temperature. Whole butter can be used only at low temperatures
because included milk protein solids brown and then burn easily. Overheated
butter loses much of its flavor and severely overheated butter will be bitter.
Camelina Oil -
[False Flax, Camelina sativa]
This oil, from the seeds of a plant of the mustard family, is getting
a lot of attention due to the very favorable Omega-6 / Omega-3 balance
(23.0% / 31.2%) and its high content of antioxidants and vitamin E which
make it quite resistant to oxidation. Used as a cooking oil it has a
slight almond flavor. It is also getting a lot of attention as a possible
biofuel for jet engines. This plant is native to Europe and Central Asia,
and has been cultivated as an oil seed plant for at least 4000 years.
Photo by Fornax distributed under license
Canola Oil -
[Lear Oil, Brassica campestris]
"Canola" is an invented name (Canada + oil + low acid) for genetically modified rapeseed oil. Technically it is "low erucic acid, low glucosinolates rapeseed oil". Originally this modification was by breeding but recently it's by "engineering", with 80% of the crop now considered "GM".
Rapeseed oil was long an important lubricant for machinery exposed to water and steam, so during World War II, when European and Asian supplies were cut off, large plantings were established in Canada. After the war new markets needed to be found, so voila! "Health food".
Rape is a member of the mustard / cabbage family. Stems of leaves are sold in Asian markets as Yu Choy, and it's a fine vegetable - but unmodified rapeseed oil is high in erucic acid, thought to cause of heart lesions in humans and animals. The FDA consider it unfit for food. The genetically modified Canola version has under 2% erucic acid and is listed by the FDA as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe), though it's rumored that listing cost Canada a bundle.
Canola is now intensely promoted by the seed oil industry as the healthiest
of all cooking oils, pointing to it's high monounsaturated and Omega-3 fat
contents. The success of this promotion is shown by the many cookbooks now
specifically listing Canola oil in every recipe calling for cooking
oil. As usual with industry promotions, there's negative stuff swept
under the carpet. Some experts point to dangers and a few even call it
unfit for human consumption - but those shrill Internet tracts about mustard
gas are completely without merit. For more details see our
Canola Oil page,
Photo by Prazak distributed under license
Coconut oil is 91% saturated fats and only 3% polyunsaturated fats. It is highly resistant to rancidity, so can be stored at room temperature for long periods of time, and is a preferred ingredient for many products that will be stored at room temperature. Of course, with all that saturated fat it's pretty stiff, with a melting point of 76°F/24.4°C.
Coconut oil has an extremely low oxidation factor so it is highly
durable as a frying oil, even more durable than beef tallow. Virgin oil
has to be kept below 350°F/175°C, but RBD (refined) oil can go
as high as 450°F/232°C.
Details and Cooking.
Corn oil, along with Soy Oil is a dominant ingredient in supermarket general
purpose frying/salad oil. This oil is manufactured in vast quantity in the
U.S. (and corn growers are promoting it as a motor fuel in hopes of pushing
the price up). Since there are better oils for any particular purpose, and
even for general purpose (Grape Seed,
Canola), I see no reason to use it unless price is the
Dende Oil - see Palm Oil.
Duck Butter is a water soluble lubricant used in stretch forming
aircraft skins and in plumbing. I'm not sure if it is now or ever was made
out of ducks.
Photo © i0035.
This opinion appears to be supported by the evidence of ethnic populations
that eat a lot of fish. These oils are best added to the diet by eating
oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon and herring. While the body can
convert the Omega-3 in vegetable oils (flax, canola) into the Omega-3 oils
found in fish, that process can be blocked by a number of factors, including
those evil trans fats again.
Photo © b0008
Flaxseed oil is sold as a food supplement rather than for cooking. Fiber from the seeds is sometimes included as it is considered beneficial at some dosages. Flaxseed oil has its cachet from an Omega-3 fatty acid known as alfa-linolenic acid.
From its Omega-3 content flaxseed oil is compared
to fish oil, but the comparison isn't necessarily valid because the Omega-3
oils in fish oil are very different from that in flaxseed and canola oils.
The major uses of flaxseed oil are still paints, varnish and industrial
Grape Seed Oil:
With its unobtrusive flavor, grape seed oil can be used for Chinese stir fry
in place of peanut oil called for in many recipes.
Grape seed oil is higher in polyunsaturates than some other oils
(see chart) but has a high anti-oxidant content
so it resists rancidity better than many vegetable oils. One caution: it's a
fast drying oil so you want to clean up splatter right away because cleaning
will be a lot harder in a few days. On the other hand, this makes it very
good for seasoning bare steel and cast iron cookware.
Lamb Fat - see Sheep Fat.
Lara - see Annatto Oil.
Lard is still by far the best fat for many baking uses
such as pie crusts, but U.S. supermarket lard tends to be of poor quality
and heavily processed. The best lard to use for baking is called
"leaf lard" which is made from the fat from around the pigs kidneys.
It is available from some specialists (O4).
Details and Cooking.
"Soft margarine" sold in tubs has a much lower trans fat content. See our Oil Chart for details. Of course this product doesn't work well where a more solid product is needed such as baking, where you might as well use leaf lard which provides the best results and is now no more dangerous than butter.
Margarine was originally made from beef suet and lard as a cheap substitute for butter, but by the 1920s it was manufactured entirely from low cost vegetable oils.
When I was a child my parents bought margarine when butter was a lot more expensive. It was white then by law due to pressure from the dairy lobby and I got to break open the capsule of yellow dye and stir it into the white margarine until it looked sort of like butter.
On my own I've never used margarine because the flavor and texture
remind me too much of axle grease. I figured dying sooner from butter would
still be the better deal overall. Now there's no reason to use it at all since
the trans fat issue has reduced the margarine promoters to telling us their
product is "nowhere near as bad as you've heard".
Made from the same basic feed stock as diesel fuel and gasoline, mineral
oil is refined until it is water clear and safe for human consumption - but
it's indigestible and should never be used for cooking. Basically, it's a
liquid form of vaseline. Find it at a local pharmacy or in the medicines
section of your local supermarket.
This oil is unique in that usage calls for heating to the smoke point, but only for a second or two. The flavor of raw mustard oil is harsh, but brought to the smoke point and then cooling down a bit the flavor becomes much more pleasing.
Because of its high erucic acid content, a substance formerly thought
to be dangerous, all mustard oil sold in the U.S. and the European Union
carries the warning "For Massage Use Only" in small print on the label.
Demographic data and recent research suggest there is no significant risk
(except to male rats). Details and Cooking
Mutton Fat - see Sheep Fat.
When I first learned to cook, health "experts" warned us to avoid
olive oil since it contained more artery clogging saturated fats than other
vegetable oils. Today it's the only oil both the warring seed oil and coconut
oil partisans agree is healthy and it's the darling of both gourmets and
natural foods enthusiasts. Now saturated fats are gaining favor, hydrogenated
oils are the devil and polyunsaturated vegetable oils are trying to avoid
Details and Cooking.
Omega-3, Omega-6, Omega-9 Fats
There is debate over the validity of relating Omega-3 in vegetable oils (Canola and Flaxseed) to the health benefits of fish oils, as the Omega-3 oils in fish are quite different from the ones in vegetable oils, and the vegetable ones come with many times the percentage of Omega-6 compared to fish.
Palm Oil -
Dende oil is a bright red/orange palm oil typical of the cuisine of northern Brazil and parts of Africa. It's not easily available in the U.S. but can be ordered on-line. You can get pretty close by coloring some coconut oil with annato as in Annatto Oil (though taste and odor won't be quite the same).
Most palm oil imported into the U.S. is deodorized and bleached as a
food processing ingredient. It may be incorporated into
Vegetable Ghee, other food products or cosmetics.
Peanut Oil -
[Ground Nut Oil (UK)]
Planter's peanut oil used to be wildly popular and in every grocery but now any peanut oil is hard to find. Acquisition of Planters and near destruction of its brand name and markets is a textbook case for the incompetence of overpaid corporate executives and wrote "fini" to the then popular management theory that "a trained manager can manage anything".
Peanuts are actually legumes (beans) rather than nuts, so general comments about "nut oils" do not apply.
Peanut oil is called for particularly in Chinese cooking because its
light flavor does not detract from the flavor of quickly stir fried
ingredients and its high smoke point lends it to that style of frying. I
find "house brand" peanut oil in gallon jugs and 5 gallon cans at a local
restaurant supply store, but substitutes like grape seed
oil are now available everywhere (peanut is lower in polyunsaturates).
Pig Fat - see Lard.
Rapeseed Oil - Oil of a seed in the mustard family. Traditional rapeseed oil is not considered suitable for human consumption in North America but is widely used in Asia. Only in times of famine does it cause heart lesions there, because under normal conditions enough saturated fat is consumed with it to protect the heart. A genetically modified version "market named" Canola Oil is now widely used in North America, particularly for "healthy" restaurant and food processing use.
Rice Bran Oil
Seal oil is rather difficult to get in the lower 48 and Hawaii, so you
really have to know someone in Alaska or northern Canada.
Alternatively, it's easy to make it yourself. When you cut up your
seal, take all the blubber and cut it in chunks. Put the chunks in a bucket
which you keep at about 40°F somewhere the dogs can't get at it. In
about 5 days the oil will have rendered out and can be used as is or can be
filtered and purified depending on your needs (if your outdoor temperature
is above 40°F you might want to render by boiling and skimming
Photo by NOAA = public domain.
Sesame Seed Oil
Store these relatively perishable oils in a cool place away from light in
tightly sealed containers and they should last up to 9 months. Since I use
little of it I usually store a small can of the dark sesame oil in the
refrigerator (it does not solidify) to extend its life.
Sheep Fat -
[Lamb Fat, Mutton Fat, Tallow]
Sheep fat is processed from suet to tallow the same way as Beef Fat and is particularly used as a substitute for Lard by those living under religious prohibitions against pig. Note that in the U.S., mutton is very rare, most sheep being slaughtered at less than 1 year of age while they can still be called "lamb".
The preferred fat is from the sheep's tail, and in some countries
sheep are specially bred for large fat laden behinds and tails. Tail fat
is not available in the U.S. because the tail is always cut off new born
lambs here. This is to avoid a problem with flies you'd probably rather
not know about. The other preferred fat comes from around the kidneys,
same as with "leaf lard" from pigs.
Photo © i0003
Shortening - see Lard and Vegetable Shortening. Shortening is an animal fat or vegetable oil product containing enough saturated fat (or trans fats) to make it fairly solid at room temperature - important for pie crusts, cookies and other baked goods.
While serious health questions surround some soy products (soy milk and
TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein)), soybean oil is widely considered safe,
unless you ask the coconut oil partisans. Because it is high in
polyunsaturated fats and contains limited antioxidants it is more subject
to rancidity than, say, olive oil or canola oil, so keep it in tightly
sealed containers in a cool place away from direct sun and it should be
good for 9 months or so. For frying, it should be used for only short jobs
and never reused because of heat rancidity.
Suet - See Beef Fat
Refined sunflower oil is a good all-around cooking oil but not as neutral in flavor as grapeseed or peanut. "Virgin" or "cold pressed" sunflower oils have a very low smoke point and should not be used for cooking. High in polyunsaturates, sunflower oil will go rancid faster than, say, olive oil or canola oil. Store it tightly sealed in a cool dark place and use it within 9 months. For frying it should be used only for short jobs and never reused due to heat rancidity.
Genetically manipulated "High Oleic" sunflower oils are now made which
approach the oil balance of olive oil and are much more durable for deep
frying than the regular sunflower oil, but are not available on the consumer
Tallow - See Beef Fat
Trans Fats - Long promoted by health advocates as a "safer" replacement for the natural fats we evolved with, this factory made product is now known to be the most dangerous type of fat commonly used in food. For the full story see our topic Trans Fats Bad! - No Longer Controversial.
The products I've used are made from 100% palm oil colored with beta
carotene and with some butter like flavorings added. This casts it deep into
the tropical oils controversy. I
see no problem with the palm oil products, but vegetable ghee made from
hydrogenated oils would be Trans
Fats - same problem as with North American vegetable shortening and
fast food fries.
Vegetable Oil - Products so labeled are a blend of whatever seed oils the manufacturer can buy most cheaply. Generally they will be oils high in polyunsaturates such as Soy and Corn. Read the label as it varies greatly, and it can even say "may contain" so the manufacturer can vary the composition with market fluctuations.
Proctor and Gamble invented Crisco, the first vegetable shortening, because they were being killed in the soap business by competitors. They made it from the same cottonseed oil they used for soap and sold it based on unverified claims (no FDA back then) that it was a "healthier" substitute for Lard in baked goods. This sounds just like the recent shift by the soy oil folks from paint to "healthier food".
The main requirements for vegetable shortening are to be a fat solid at normal room temperature, devoid of distracting flavor and made from plants, so vegetable oils, mostly cotton seed, soy and corn, are partially hydrogenated to achieve the right consistency.
Unfortunately partially hydrogenated oils are evil trans fats, now considered the most dangerous type of fat, more dangerous even than evil saturated fats. New government labeling laws and a flood of health articles are making this product harder to market, so the edible oil industry has responded with new formulas (Crisco & others) with very low trans fat content. These are made by fully hydrogenating cottonseed oil.
Fully hydrogenated oils have the consistency of a hockey puck, but by
whipping in unhydrogenated vegetable oils the correct consistency can be
achieved. Of course fully hydrogenated oils are saturated fats, what they
were trying to get away from in the first place. It's still about half the
saturated fats of butter or lard, so it's officially "better for you"
unless you're more concerned about the high content of
Walnut oil is much used in the cuisines of Anatolia, Caucasus and Persia.
California is a major producer (and the world's second largest producer
of walnuts). but it is not often available in stores, not even Trader Joe's.
It is, however, easily available on the Internet. Refrigerate after opening.
oils* 2006 rev 120105 - www.clovegarden.com
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