Alternative cooking oils are taking over restaurant kitchens

Kat Odell | Bloomberg News (TNS)

Over the past half-dozen years, one of America’s most dependable, all-purpose pantry staples has taken a severe hit to its reputation.

Vegetable oil is key to cooking an infinite variety of food, whether fried chicken, roast vegetables, banana bread or popcorn. According to the US Department of Agriculture, about 20% of the American diet comes from the all-purpose oil.

But vegetable oils — including canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, rice bran and soy — are often created from barely edible, indigestible seeds, grains and legumes that our body can’t properly digest. Experts at the Cleveland Clinic agree that seed oils contain potentially harmful omega-6 fats. “We should avoid these at all costs,” says noted functional medicine doctor and author, Frank Lipman.

Now, oils made from better quality ingredients are moving into restaurant kitchens and high-end grocery stores.

The most notable new product comes from Zero Acre Farms in San Mateo, California. Co-founder Jeff Nobbs says that cooking oil “doesn’t need to be a problem.” In 2022 he introduced his neutral-tasting, eco-friendly product, made from sustainably farmed non-GMO sugar cane from southern Brazil. To make it, proprietary algae cultures are added to raw sugar cane: The algae eat the sugar, and fermentation naturally converts the sugar into oil. The process has caught the attention of investors: To date, Zero Acre Farms has raised more than $40 million from investors like Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group Ltd.

Although vegetable oils’ bad rap comes in part from their elevated levels of unhealthy omega-6 fats — a cause of internal inflammation — Zero Acre Farms’ product contains less than 3% of them. Instead, it’s made up of 93% omega-9, heart-healthy, heat-stable monounsaturated fat, making it even higher in “good fat” than olive oil and avocado oil. It also has a carbon footprint that’s about 10 times lower than most vegetable oils and a smoke point of 485F. (By comparison, olive oil’s smoke point is around 400F; canola oil’s ranges from 375°F to 475°F.)

One of the leading chefs now using Zero Acre Farms oil is Kyle Connaughton of the three-Michelin-star kaiseki-style SingleThread Farms in Healdsburg, California. “Our tempura has never tasted better, or [been] more shatter-crisp,” says Connaughton, who now uses it instead of grapeseed and rice bran oils for almost all his cooking. He notes the superior flavor and the environmental and health benefits compared with other oils.

Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York, studied the oil for about a year. He deems Zero Acre Farms “fantastic” for plant-based options and calls out the oil’s “brilliant” neutral taste. Finding a good-for-you, good-for-the-planet oil that works over very high heat is a chef’s “equivalent of the holy grail,” he says.

Another proponent is New York’s Coqodaq, the white-hot fried chicken spot, where a menu section titled “Better Oil” shouts out its benefits. Chef Seung Kyu Kim now uses it to cook all the fried chicken options at the 190-seat Korean restaurant.

Zero Acre Farms isn’t the only new alternative to vegetable oil that’s getting attention. Last month, venture studio Squared Circles introduced Algae Cooking Club, backed by star chef Daniel Humm of New York’s renowned Eleven Madison Park. The oil is made from sugar-fed algae that’s pressed to release oil—much like an olive—and has a spate of health benefits including a 93% concentration of healthy omega-9 fats (surpassing olive oil which contains about 70%). It also boasts a smoke point of 535°F and has half the carbon emissions of canola and olive oils.

One thing these oils aren’t is cheap. A 16-ounce bottle of Zero Acre goes for $27. A 16-ounce bottle of Algae cooking oil is $25.

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In Europe, Äio in Estonia is working to break into the US market in the next few years. The company uses patented technology to “brew” yeast and convert it into fat, for its vibrantly colored RedOil and its solid, butter-style Buttery Fat. “We want to provide a sustainable and nutritious alternative to unsustainable fats and oils,” says co-founder and biologist Nemailla Bonturi. RedOil contains about 10% heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is richer in polyphenols (plant compounds with anti-inflammatory properties) than spinach and is just about as packed with antioxidants as blueberries.

But some chefs are reaching for more traditional products to replace unhealthy vegetable oils. At New York’s Korean tasting menu haunt Kochi, chef Sungchul Shim uses perilla leaf oil both for cooking and finishing dishes. The popular Korean ingredient is not only fragrant and flavorful, but it also has notable amounts of omega-3 fats. Over in Brooklyn, chef Jay Kumar of Lore cooks with coconut oil from his native India. In addition to its unique nutty-sweet taste, coconut oil is said to raise HDL, or “good” cholesterol, and it promotes heart health.

Also increasingly popular in restaurant kitchens is avocado oil. With a notably high smoke point of 520°F and anti-inflammatory properties, it’s the pick of Shaun Hergatt of New York’s seafood-focused Vestry. Hergatt says he uses it to cook vegetables and seafood, as the oil doesn’t burn easily and “keeps [the] purity of what you are cooking.”

Will the new alternative oils become a staple of home kitchens? It depends on whether people will spend what is closer to the price of a fancy bottle of olive oil to fry chicken. Meanwhile, there’s always those traditional oils: A good 16-oz. bottle of avocado oil retails for less than $12.

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