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Dharma Kitchen


Burning Questions: Q&A with Lisa Howard, author of the Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils

Carrie H

Many folks in the food world are well aware of the benefits of oils and fats; we don't shy away from them, we typically endorse their smart usage and don't ever, ever, buy margarine. Real, whole and unprocessed are more than buzzwords; they have some merit to them. Lisa Howard has just written a book called The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils: Recipes Using Coconut Oil and Other Unprocessed and Unrefined Oils and it's a clear call for better understanding of fats. The cookbook is organized by fat type (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) and then the oils in those categories, from coconut, ghee and lard to hazelnut, avocado and flaxseed oils.

We asked her five burning questions about healthy cooking oils, and on Wednesday we'll run a recipe from her new book. But before we get to that, she wants to impart this message. "People usually regard fats as an incredibly complex subject, but it really just comes down to common sense: humans have been consuming unrefined oils for thousands and thousands of years, but heavily processed oils (such as trans fats) have only been possible to make for the past 100 years, and heavily processed oils did not become a regular part of our food supply until the 1950s and 60s. Quite simply, we just haven't evolved to eat this stuff. Let's stick with tried-and-true unprocessed, fresh oils. They're flavorful, they're versatile, and they're a healthy part of our foodscape." And how!  



Lisa Howard's new book provides dozens of recipes for cooking with unrefined oils. 

Lisa Howard's new book provides dozens of recipes for cooking with unrefined oils. 

What is a healthy cooking oil? 

Any unrefined oil is healthy—the important part is knowing what kind of oil to use for medium to high heat, low to medium heat, or no heat. Fats that are mostly saturated (butter, ghee, coconut oil, palm oil) are great for higher heat cooking, while most fruit and nut oils—and animal fats like lard in bacon grease—are fantastic for using in cooking with medium or lower heat (those are monounsaturated fats). Walnut oil, flaxseed oil and other polyunsaturated oils (mostly seed oils) should never be heated. They are great to use as dressings, drizzles, and dips. By using the appropriate oil in its appropriate heat setting, the oil will retain all of its flavor and nutrition.

What is your healthy oil nirvana?

My fervent hope is that people will enjoy reading my cookbook and will learn all about how to choose, use, and enjoy unrefined oils!

What is your healthy fat nightmare? 

I cringe every time I see people put extra-virgin olive oil next to the stove or on the windowsill. Heat and light damage oils. Please treat your oils with care and store them in a cool, dark cupboard away from heat sources or—better yet—in the refrigerator. Saturated fats are the sole exception, because they are far more stable. Ghee can be stored at room temperature for months with no problem, and it can handle the highest heat of all the fats: up to 500°F.

What is the most egregious, irritating myth you want to bust regarding fats and oils? 

Unrefined fats don't make us fat! Heavily processed fats and sugar are the main problems in the American foodscape in terms of contributing to chronic disease and ballooning healthcare costs. (Not to mention lack of flavor.) Trans fat is a great example of a horrifically overprocessed fat, but other heavily refined fats such as vegetable oil and any olive oil that is not extra-virgin are also problematic. It's easy to tell if an oil is fresh or not: taste it and smell it. Unrefined oils taste and smell like the fruits, nuts, or seeds they were pressed from. I get very frustrated when TV chefs tell their audiences to use a "neutral" oil like canola. Those flavorless oils are heavily refined. Aside from the health implications, why would you NOT want flavor?

What is the most surprising use of a healthy oil that you've encountered while writing this book?

I had at least 16 kinds of oil in my pantry before I started writing this book, but I was surprised to discover that a whole line of squash seed oil is made by a company in New York: kabocha squash, delicata squash, butternut squash, you name it. They are all tender oils and should not be heated, but wow! They are amazingly flavorful and are incredible drizzled on everything from waffles to ice cream. And then there are the salad dressing possibilities...