Cooking with alternative oils

By now, it’s been drilled into our heads that oil is bad for us—especially partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Found in kitchens and restaurants everywhere, this inexpensive oil is used to fry food, is mixed into baked desserts and other recipes, and is the primary ingredient in margarine, another healthy eating no-no.

Why is this readily available oil so bad for you? Aside from the hefty calorie and fat content—it’s 100 percent fat, with a tablespoon serving delivering 13.6 grams of fat and 120 calories—this popular cooking ingredient contains trans fat, which raises cholesterol and increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

Fortunately, there are healthier alternatives to vegetable oil, margarine, and even sugar you can use to create fabulous-tasting dishes and desserts that won’t pack on the pounds or clog your arteries.

Coconut oil

While it’s true that this tropical oil has a high fat content, it also contains a lot of lauric acid—about 50 percent. Lauric acid is an essential nutrient with antiviral and antibacterial properties that boosts your immune system. It also improves the digestive system, assists in weight loss, and does wonders for your hair and skin.

Coconut oil can be used for pan frying, added to cakes or cookies for extra flavor, or substituted for vegetable oil, butter, or shortening in recipes. It’s available in two types: extra virgin, with a light, sweet flavor, and flavorless expeller-pressed.

Olive oil

The health benefits of olive oil are numerous. It’s loaded with monounsaturated fats, the “good” fats our bodies need, and it’s healthy for your heart. It also tastes great—and it’s versatile. You can use it straight out of the bottle as a salad dressing or a dip for bread (far better for you than butter), cook with it, or use it in your baking.

When cooking with olive oil, it’s important to be aware of the different types, and use them accordingly:

  • Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil is ideal for uncooked applications and for adding flavor to cooked dishes. Use it for bread dips, salad dressing, in sauces and meat marinades, or drizzled over cooked pasta or potatoes in place of butter.
  • Refined and olive grade olive oils work great for frying, since virgin and extra-virgin blends aren’t good at withstanding heat and tend to lose flavor or break down.
  • Fine virgin olive oil is a multipurpose variety that can be used in almost any recipe, including as a substitute for butter or shortening in baking recipes. In general, use three tablespoons of olive oil for every quarter cup of butter or margarine.

Sugar substitutes

In addition to swapping out unhealthy oil and margarine, you can also cook, bake, and sweeten without sugar for fewer calories, while still retaining excellent taste.

Agave syrup is one of the newer and more popular sugar substitutes. Made from the nectar of the agave plant, which grows primarily in the southeastern U.S., this sweetener can be used for cooking, canning, baking, and sweetening coffee and tea in place of sugar.

For drinks, salad dressings, sauces, and canning, use the same amount of agave syrup as you would sugar. For granulated sugar substitutions in recipes, you’ll want to replace each cup of sugar with 2/3 cup of agave, reducing other liquids by ¼ to 1/3 cup. When baking with agave, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees F and slightly increase the baking time.

Stevia is another natural sweetener that’s been used for decades in Japan, but has only recently become popular in the United States. It’s up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, and is sold in liquid form, powdered extract, and blended single-serving packets or bulk. Blended bulk stevia can be used cup-for-cup in place of sugar, and the packets are typically used to sweeten drinks in place of Equal or NutraSweet.

When substituting stevia for sugar in recipes, a little bit goes a long way. Use just one teaspoon of liquid stevia, or 1/3 to ½ teaspoon of pure stevia extract powder, for every cup of sugar.

With just a few shifts in your cooking and baking habits, you can eat healthier and enjoy great flavors, with less fat and sugar. Happy substituting!