Oil Free Cooking
I try to mainly eat whole foods which means that I don’t use much oil in my cooking. Oil is not a whole food: it no longer contains the fibre and water soluble parts of the seeds, nuts or fruit from which it was extracted, and so it is almost 100% fat with just a small percentage of fat-soluble vitamins. I’ve never eaten much oil and food where you can actually taste the oil is unpleasant to me, but I’ve always cooked with a little oil. Until recently I would normally start any recipe by sautéing veg in a splash of oil: that’s how I was taught to cook. Over the past year or so, however, I’ve started getting more and more interested in eating as close to 100% whole food as possible, mainly from reading material such as the ‘China Study’ and ‘How Not To Die’ (both of which I would highly recommend). During 2018 I had a little experiment where I went completely oil free for 3 months to see whether my taste preferences and cooking style would change after going cold turkey. To a certain extent they did, but I still use oil for certain dishes now that I’m using oil again. Here are my thoughts on the issue.
The first thing to say is that oil does change the flavour of food because it carries the fat-soluble flavours from other ingredients, plus it also coats the food slightly, resulting in a more unctuous mouthfeel. Generally oil has flavour of its own too. I’d say the inclusion of oil mellows some flavours that may otherwise be a little ‘spikey’ and gives the food a generally more ‘rounded’ taste. But that’s not to say you always need it. I find that food cooked quickly, such as stir fries, work well without oil because they retain the fresh flavours from the vegetables, the same way you don’t need oil poured over steamed veg or salad. Sauces that are creamy anyway definitely don’t require oil as they have fat from whatever is making the sauce creamy: usually plant milk, nuts or seeds. So for me coconut milk curry, white sauces and dips made with nut or seed butters don’t need oil. I used to make baked falafels, lentil burgers and nut loaves with a bit of oil in them but I’ve found that cutting out the oil makes little difference to the finished article. Likewise replacing oil with extra water in my bread recipe does not seem to alter the flavour or texture, though I do add shelled hemp seeds to my bread which will release fats. And to go with the bread, soups and stews, whether puréed or chunky, are generally nice without oil too.
There are times though when a recipe just doesn’t taste as good without oil. For example roasted vegetables just don’t taste very roasted without it. Likewise you need oil to caramelise onions (and other vegetables) on the hob too. More dishes than you’d think require onions to be caramelised: bolognese sauces and many curries require you to slowly sauté onions in oil, and whilst you can sauté in water or stock, the result isn’t quite the same. Another reason many curries require a little oil is to realise the flavour of the spices, though at a push you can make oil free curry using ground, rather than whole, spices (whole spices such as cumin seeds, mustard seeds…etc require frying to release their flavours. You can however dry fry whole spices then grind them.). However if you add coconut or nut milk to a curry, and use ground spices, oil is not necessary.
Oil free tomato based sauces took me a while to get used to and I think using good quality tomatoes, and adding some form of fat such as nuts or seeds, is key. I do still make quick tomato sauces with oil sometimes: it’s a completely different dish.
The thing that changed most after my 3 month oil free experiment was my taste preference where hummus is concerned. I used to use quite a bit of oil in my hummus but now I really don’t like my old hummus recipe at all, and much prefer the dip to be made with just a little oil, or no oil at all. I think it goes back to being able to taste the oil: recipes where a small amount of oil is used to enhance other flavours get a tick from me; recipes that rely on the oil’s flavour get a big fat cross!
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using oil sparingly, but it’s quite easy to go without it most of the time. Actually using less may reset your tastebuds and allow you to enjoy food that is less fatty. Just remember to include some whole food fats in an oil free meal: that means nuts, seeds, nut or seed butters, coconut, olives or avocados. We do need to eat fat and some vitamins require a small amount for proper absorption, so going without completely may not do you any favours. Plus food is way tastier with a little bit of fat!