Let's Eat

Time to discover the benefits of oil

Great news! Chanucah treats might not be so bad for your health.


The amount of fried food circulating at Chanucah means that for thosekeeping an eye on their health, the festival of not-so lite a bit of an ordeal.

The jury is out on whether or not a low-fat latke is worth grating a potato for, and no one wants to be a party pooper, so here is the low-down on oil and ways of enjoying it without harming your health.

All oils contain fats but not all fats are created equal. There are four main types. They are, from least healthy to the least unhealthy, trans-fat (hydrogenated fat); saturated fats; polyunsaturated (such as sunflower oil), and mono-unsaturated, which includes olive oil.

The first two are the ones to give a wide berth. The already infamous trans-fats are rapidly disappearing from ingredients lists everywhere. Saturated fats are why we are told to avoid cakes, biscuits, butter, cheese and countless other goodies. The oils that have some redeeming features and can be included (in moderate quantities) in a healthy diet are those containing mono-unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated sunflower oil is a good source of antioxidant vitamin E, and can actually help lower cholesterol. It is reasonably inexpensive and suitable for latke frying.

Not all fats are created equal

The Torah's oil of choice for lighting the Chanucah menorah is olive oil, which has a high content of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and anti-oxidants, which help fight heart disease, ulcers and gastritis. Olive oil is graded by its acidity. Extra virgin olive oil is the oil from the first press and the least processed. Virgin is from the second pressing, and, confusingly, "pure olive oil" is actually filtered and refined, making it the most suitable for cooking.

Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil has the highest levels of mono-unsaturated fatty acids and anti-oxidants. It has the deepest flavour but there is some dispute as to whether it should be used for cooking. Some chefs prefer to reserve it as a "finishing" oil, drizzled over salads, in pesto or added to soups or risottos just before serving. It is perfect as a flavour for parev mashed potatoes.

Other cultures use it as an all-rounder, using it for dressings and shallow frying. Greeks and Italians even deep-fry with it. As it has a burning point of approximately 185˚C to 200˚C, you would need to be careful not to overheat it or it will burn and smoke.

Gorgeously golden, extra-virgin rapeseed oil has just six per cent saturated fat, compared to 14 per cent for olive oil and 10 per cent for sunflower. It also has the important ratio of 2:1 omega 6 to omega 3 that is recommended for a healthy diet, and it contains vitamin E which helps to preserve the omega 3 in cooking and maintains the oil's nutritional value. With a high burning point, rapeseed is a useful in all styles of cooking. Try it when searing salmon, stir frying or baking raisin biscuits (recipe below).

Sunflower, olive and rapeseed oils all work well in cake recipes, providing useful parev pudding ideas.

If your Chanucah really is incomplete without a latke or doughnut, take comfort from the fact that deep-fried food actually absorbs less fat than shallow-fried. You can limit fat absorption by making sure your frying oil is the right temperature. If the oil is too cool, food will take longer to cook, absorb more oil and end up greasy. If too hot, the oil may reach burning point when it will give off smoke and burn the food. Flavour and nutritional value start to degrade and carcinogenic free radicals may also be created. Always deep-fry in an oil specifically stated to be for that purpose.

The optimum temperature for latke-frying between 180˚C and 190˚C. It is worth testing the oil temperature with a thermometer or by frying a cube of bread before you cook. If the bread browns in 60 seconds, the oil temperature will be about 185˚C.

To keep it at the right temperature, limit how much you cook in each batch - too much will bring the temperature - and give it time to get back up to heat before the next batch.

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