Have you noticed that none of my recipes include oil? Or if they do it’s as an after thought – a garnish – rather than one of the first things added to a pan. When you’re using a whole-food plant-based diet to transform a health condition, it’s really important to cut out heated oils. So there can be some steep learning curves whilst you try out new cooking methods.
One of the trickiest techniques is frying without oil. Frying and sauteing is still possible but using water or stock instead of oil. It’s not hard to do once you’ve had a little practice. This article is going to briefly cover why oil is not used in a whole-food plant-based diet followed by some of my top tips on how to do it well and maximise flavour.
And don’t forget, because healthy fats are essential for health, you can still eat plenty of it in a whole-food plant-based diet but in their whole not refined form. There’s lots of healthy fats in nuts and seeds, fresh produce like avocado and olives as well as soya products and oats to name a few. When we eat these in their whole form rather than refined, they release an array of nutrients, not just fat, as well as lots of lovely fibre for the microbiome. To find out more about what’s included in a whole-food plant-based diet, check out this page.
Why cook without oil?u
Refined vegetable and seed cooking oils have gone through a highly industrial process that strips away any nutrient, leaving only the fat. Often the natural structure of those fats have been altered through the refining process. These are toxic to the body and trigger inflammation. In addition, once these oils are heated to a high temperature, they oxidise, forming free radical compounds. These then have contact with food, the chemical structures change once again, forming more inflammatory compounds.
This is particularly pertinent for deep fried food, as the damaged oil is absorbed into the structure of what’s being cooked. Think of how a batter changes from liquid to crispy solid once fried. Then when you eat it, the oil now forms part of the batter and you eat it.
Frying or sauteing in a pan uses less oil, but the same principle applies. There might be much less of it, but the oil in the base of a frying pan gets heated to such a high temperature it changes it’s structure (that smoking point) and once again gets absorbed into the food. Any fats in the food will also be changed once it has contact with the pan which gets super hot.
So what’s the solution?
Water can only be heated to 100C before it starts to evaporate. So although the pan gets hot, the frying medium (water) will never get any hotter as it disappears (literally!). It’s easy to saute veggies in a couple of tablespoons of water. As the natural sugars get released, they start to soften and caramelise – as long as there’s not too much water in the pan. But you have to keep an eye on it, as once the water evaporates the contents of the pan will stick and burn pretty quickly. The key is not to get distracted by other things or the smoke alarm will be going off before you know it!
A good quality pan is also important. I like the Prestige Eco pans for stir frying. And good quality stainless steel or cast iron pots for cooking on the hob and in the oven.
Getting the right heat is also key to not getting your food stuck to the bottom of the pan. To low, it won’t cook. Too high and the pan contents will start to burn very quickly, particularly onion and garlic. And no-one likes the flavour of burnt garlic!
If you add too much water to start, the veggies will steam rather than saute. So adding two tablespoons of water is best, then adding a bit more once it’s evaporated and if things start to stick. This also nicely deglazes the pan so you get all the yummy caramelized bits adding in too.
What if I like oil for flavour?
Some people will say they like the flavour of oils like extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil or cold-pressed flaxseed oil. Can they be used? Yes – but not cooked with. These oils do add flavour as well as healthy anti-inflammatory fats (in the case of EVOO and flaxseed). But they should NEVER be added directly to the heat in the pan, only after cooking has finished. So more of a garnish really. And they really can be delicious – as long as they’re fresh, quality oils that have been stored properly. Anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats are somewhat volatile and go rancid quickly if exposed to like or heat. How will you know if it’s rancid? It taste foul! Once tasted, never forgotten 😉
If you want some more of my top tips, here’s a little video I put together for the online course I used to run.
I hope you found this helpful. If you have any questions or top tips to share, do please add them to the comments section below.