Frying food in a pan is one of the quickest and easiest ways to whip up a tasty meal for your family. But how healthy is it in the first place? We asked Registered Dietitians to give their take.
Pan-frying, a dry-heat, stove-top cooking method, is best done in a preheated pan over medium to medium-high heat. The intense heat of your skillet browns and caramelizes your food, creating a crispy and flavorful crust that makes it oh-so-delicious.
You could lightly grease your pan with the help of a paper towel and fry foods in a tablespoon or two of cooking oil. Or you could pour with a heavy hand and shallow-fry in a generous amount of oil instead.
The former crisps up and dries out your food in a way that’s very similar to grilling or broiling; the latter makes food crunchy and seals the juices in Kentucky Fried Chicken-style, especially when breaded or battered.
Though you could use any cooking oil or fat to fry food in a pan, a few ground rules in terms of “healthiness” apply.
Reach for the Right Kind of Cooking Oil
Choosing the right kind of cooking oil or fat—in addition to what you’re already pan-frying—is the main thing that determines the healthiness of your home-cooked meal, Michelle Rauch, MS, RD, the Registered Dietitian for the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, NJ, tells Home Cook World.
Rauch, who can be found on LinkedIn, also runs Dietitians with a Mission (follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram). Dietitians with a Mission is a goodwill project that she helped organize with a fellow RD to support frontline healthcare workers during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The healthiest oils to use are the ones that are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats help with lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), which can reduce your risk for heart disease and strokes.”
It turns out that this type of fat contains fatty acids—the building block of fat in our bodies. Fatty acids serve more than one important function in our bodies, from storing energy to fueling the activity of our cells.
“Polyunsaturated fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fats which are essential fatty acids (EFAs). Essential fatty acids are necessary for cell growth and brain function. Essential fatty acids are only accessible through food so using these healthy oils are one way to make them a part of your diet.”
“Avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil are good choices,” says Stacy Roberts-Davis, Registered Dietitian. You can find Roberts-Davis on her website, Flavorful Lifestyle, or handle @cancer.nutrition.coach on Instagram.
“Extra virgin olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat, which is a good fat,” she tells Home Cook World readers. “It can help protect your heart and maintain HDL (good fat) and lower LDL (bad fat) levels. It is also full of antioxidants.”
“Avocado oil,” on the other hand, is “a good source of monounsaturated fats. It is a good source of vitamin E. Avocado has a higher smoke point, so it won’t burn as fast as extra virgin olive oil would.”
When asked about her favorites, Roberts-Davis says that olive oil has more flavor than avocado oil, so she reaches for it when cooking veggies or chicken. “But if I was making a chinese stir fry or something with a lot of flavor, I would use avocado oil since it has a mild taste.”
Don’t Pour Too Much Oil in Your Pan
Even the healthiest of cooking oils and fats pack plenty of calories and can heighten your calorie intake to unreasonable levels if you pour them a little too generously into your skillet.
“It’s about the right amount of oil being used,” says Michelle Rauch. “You may not even need to use too much, and at times even get away with using a cooking spray or olive oil mister.”
Cooking sprays are a great way to make your stainless steel skillet less sticky. However, using cooking spray in a non-stick or ceramic pan isn’t recommended, as it can build up on the cooking surface and, err…, stick.
So owners of PTFE- and ceramic-coated pans should follow Rauch’s second piece of advice, which is to drizzle 1-2 tablespoons of cooking oil in your skillet. “Just enough to coat the bottom of your piece or fish, chicken, et al.”
Mind Your Cooking Oils’ Smoke Points
All cooking oils have a smoke point, the temperature at which they stop to glisten and shimmer and start to break down and burn. Overheat an oil or fat, and it will form harmful compounds and start to emit a steady stream of toxic bluish smoke.
The rule of thumb is that refined oils, such as canola oil, corn oil, and safflower oil, tend to have higher smoke points, whereas unrefined oils, such as extra virgin olive oil, tend to have lower smoke points.
The reason for that, Medical Doctor turned Cookbook Author Stuart Farrimond writes in The Science of Cooking, is that “unrefined oils contain minerals, enzymes, and flavor-carry impurities, which have a tendency to burn.”
As with any rule, there are a few exceptions:
For example, cold-pressed avocado oil, flaxseed oil, and grapeseed oil have smoke points of respectively 480°F, 450°F, and 420°F, which makes them suitable for high-heat frying.
When cooking over medium-high to high heat, you’re going to want to use a cooking oil or fat with a high smoke point. When cooking over gentler, medium heat, you can safely opt for an oil with a lower smoke point.
My go-to choices for pan-frying are avocado oil and rice bran oil for high heat and extra virgin olive oil for low-to-moderate heat.