Fried food is regularly pummeled in the village square by CW because of the fat content. We Primal types know better of course. Although we eschew the carb-based foods (potatoes, donuts, corn chips, battered/breaded everything) that disgrace fry pans and deep fryers everywhere, we get along fine with the fat itself. I get a lot of questions from readers about frying foods – whether frying is a truly Primal practice and how frying can be done properly to avoid oxidation and retain nutrients. I know there are a lot of fried fans at MDA, and I hope they’ll share their tips as well.
Is frying Primal?
I’d give that a solid yes. With the right oils under the right conditions, fried veggies and meats are perfectly acceptable Primal delicacies. Are there better cooking methods? Yes. But again, with the right fat, temperature and food (no traditional batters in sight), frying is an an acceptable cooking method.
How does it work?
When the food comes in contact with the oil, the heat essentially activates the food’s moisture and steam cooks it from the inside. In a delicate equilibrium of deep frying, the steam keeps the oil from permeating the food, and the oil keeps the food’s moisture inside.
Ideal deep frying temperatures are generally 350°-375°. Lower than 325° and the oil will be absorbed into the food, making for gross, greasy fare. Much higher than 375° and you run the risk of additional oxidation in the oil as well as dried out food.
How does frying compare with other cooking methods when it comes to nutrient value?
Cooking almost always has some impact on the nutritional profile of a food. In cases like lycopene for tomato, cooking has a positive effect. In other cases, cooking diminishes nutritional content. Some research suggests that deep frying retains more antioxidant capacity in some vegetables but less in others when compared to boiling or pan frying. (Pan frying fared the worst.)
Speaking of pan frying, the difference is more than the pan itself. Pan frying is a shallow frying method, meaning the oil doesn’t cover more than half of the food you’re cooking. Some research suggests that pan frying results in more oil decomposition than deep frying. Pan frying generally takes longer, which may contribute to this difference. Although the oil in both methods is basically the same temperature, pan frying is more likely to produce carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) when the surface of the meat (or – to a lesser extent – vegetable) is burnt or overcooked. Although low and slow cooking methods (like braising) are great in preventing the formation of HCAs, deep frying or flash sautéing of small pieces are also good options, since they avoid any charring or scorching of food.
What are the best fats to use for frying?
You’ll want to choose oil with a smoke point of at least 350°F. (Personally, I like to err on the side of caution and go for a smoke point of 375° or above.) Oil, if heated beyond its smoke point, chemically deteriorates and forms toxic compounds associated with oxidative stress markers and degenerative illness in the human body.
Some folks swear by palm oil, which works well at frying temps because of its high smoke point (425°) and low toxic volatile emission rates. Beyond that, I would recommend animal fats: tallow, lard, lamb fat or other animal fats. My personal favorite is tallow, which is an incredibly stable fat source with a very high smoke point (420°). A side note: if you’ll be eating the fried food cold, use lard to avoid the coated tongue feeling.
I know some folks use olive oil for frying and stand by its stability in high heat because of its high monosaturated content. If you’re going to use olive oil, I’d recommend virgin olive oil (420° smoke point) as opposed to extra virgin olive oil (320°).
How do restaurants fry their food?
Although I think it’s entirely possible to do Primal frying at home, I wouldn’t touch the typical restaurant’s fried food. The most commonly used oils for commercial frying are hydrogenated vegetable oils (whether it’s labeled trans fat free or not) or canola oil, neither of which I eat or recommend. A few old school places still use lard, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer over time. Restaurants (being naturally profit-driven) also reuse their cooking oil time and again, which leads to continual decomposition. Although there are health protocols, who’s to say how well some of these places adhere to any guidelines when the inspectors aren’t around. I’ll skip the partially oxidized oil, thank you. Finally, some restaurants are taking advantage of new nanotechnology devices that allow them to use oil longer. The jury is still out on nanotech, and I for one would rather skip the experimental phase.
Let me wrap this up by saying that while frying food under just the right conditions can be a Primal endeavor some fat at these high heats will still oxidize. That for me is reason enough to not make frying food a daily occurrence. I play it safe and go low and slow for most of my meals.
Now let’s hear from you! Primal fryers out there, what say you? I’d love to read your tips (and recipes). Have a great weekend, everyone!