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Really confused about health of pan frying

Hi - the past month or so, I have determined I need to cook more at home to be a bit healthier. It is working so far (shedding pounds and saving money), but I want to make sure I am not cooking unhealthy...

I basically "pan fry" or "sear" or "sauté" all my proteins in either olive or grape seed oil (I will cook some poultry on an indoor foreman like grill with no oil). This includes fish (salmon, halibut, cod), chicken (skinless breasts), beef (grass fed burgers or steak), etc.

Everyone says frying is bad. But I googled some baked fish recipies, and all of them say "brush the fish with a teaspoon of olive oil." How is this different than pan searing fish with a tablespoon of olive oil (with half of it left over)? FWIW I never use any kind of breading on any meat I cook and I don't use any salt. Sometimes with fish I will add some lemon juice and unsalted butter for a quick sauce, but that's about it.

Am I really eating seriously unhealthy by cooking in a pan with oil? How healthy or unhealthy is this cooking method? Sites that warn against "frying" always seem to assume you are deep frying with breading.

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  1. Frying food, even deep frying isn't unhealthy if done correctly. All that bubbling and hissing is the water in your food boiling out. This also has the benefit of creating a barrier between your food and the oil. You're in trouble if the bubbling stops, then you're just soaking up oil.

    pro-tip: Do not drain your food on paper towels. All that happens is that the towels absorb the oil and your food is sitting on oil soaked paper. Use a rack, towels under that.

    1. No, fats are healthy, and you cannot absorb some vitamins adequately without them. Breading and deep frying are an unhealthy combination, but proteins and fats are the only essentials in human nutrition.

      When anti fat folks talk about frying being bad, they're usually referring to deep fry, but even there, it's likely the processed batter and high heat combination that's at fault, if any.

      31 Replies
      1. re: mcf

        for many Americans, fats are NOT healthy...atherosclerosis starts EARLY for many Americans...we are dying because of our excessive lifestyles...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkWd0R... this is a video with citations and peer reviews. JUST saying for those who DO care about their fat intake. AND to be clear, I am talking about heart disease here and how fats contribute to it as our #1 killer in the U.S.

        1. re: Val

          Fats do not promote atherosclerosis, that story is over, was never true. They prevent it, when they replace starches and sugars. It's the bun, the fries, the Coke and the hot apple pies with that burger...http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20...

          Conclusions: A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. More data are needed to elucidate whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.

          1. re: mcf

            I think your statement is ludicrous.. Bill Clinton REVERSED his own heart disease by going to a plant-based diet, it's right there.. Does everyone need to do it??? Maybe not but he was facing more surgery due to his lousy diet and he didn't want the surgery. And perhaps OP should have his or her numbers checked if they are worried about frying and their health. *just saying*

            1. re: Val

              No, he didn't. And he and Hillary have aged about 20 years in the last 5, they look awful. You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Bill Clinton is not healthy man, on all those statins and carbs. I, OTOH, lowered my CVD risk ratio from the top decile to below average on a 50% fat diet, much of it saturated, by abandoning my ill advised, plant based diet years ago. Reversed diabetic kidney and nerve damage, too, without meds, for the past 15 years.

              Bill looked FABULOUSLY healthy on reduced carb, though.

              http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20...
              Twenty-one studies identified by searching MEDLINE and EMBASE databases and secondary referencing qualified for inclusion in this study. A random-effects model was used to derive composite relative risk estimates for CHD, stroke, and CVD.
              RESULTS:
              During 5-23 y of follow-up of 347,747 subjects, 11,006 developed CHD or stroke. Intake of saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of CHD, stroke, or CVD. The pooled relative risk estimates that compared extreme quantiles of saturated fat intake were 1.07 (95% CI: 0.96, 1.19; P = 0.22) for CHD, 0.81 (95% CI: 0.62, 1.05; P = 0.11) for stroke, and 1.00 (95% CI: 0.89, 1.11; P = 0.95) for CVD. Consideration of age, sex, and study quality did not change the results.
              CONCLUSIONS:
              A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. More data are needed to elucidate whether CVD risks are likely to be influenced by the specific nutrients used to replace saturated fat.

              1. re: mcf

                I was a vegetarian for 22 years. Doctors and nutritionists raved about the completeness of my diet, and I ate more protein than most vegetarians. During that time, one of the health problems I developed was peripheral neuropathy. I have been eating meat now for almost a year, and my PN is almost entirely healed. It's amazing.

                Any doctor or nutritionist would have said that my diet had complete nutrition, but obviously, that wasn't the case.

            2. re: mcf

              MCF and Val: remember, the question at hand isn't whether *fat* is unhealthy, it's whether *frying* is unhealthy. However much fat you have in your diet, and whatever kind of fat you use (lard, coconut oil, olive oil, corn oil, butter), it is definitely healthier not to *fry* with the stuff, but to use lower-temperature cooking methods and to use fat sparingly during the cooking process and add any additional fat desired after removing from heat.

              1. re: mcf

                Saturated fats aren't the problem but starches aren't the problem, either (you just had to replace one forbidden food with another in order to keep the score tied?). The problem is lack of nutrient density and more calories than we need.

                  1. re: jmckee

                    forbidden foods / ingredients . . .

                    changes daily by which kook's fad diet is currently in vogue
                    and/or
                    which FDA kook has made their personal warpath into a major thoroughfare.

                    in theory the human race should no longer be on the planet - all gone extinct from eating / using 'forbidden' foodstuffs, don'cha know......

                    1. re: PSRaT

                      Touché!

                      But don't try to demonstrate it (via hard science) to people already comfortably self-diagnosed (this month) with excess carbs, gluten metabolic disorders, "MSG sensitivity," or whatever else comes along. They'll only get angry, and conjure still more Google hits that seem to support their rhetoric.

                      Misconceptions are cherished as if they were something precious.

              2. re: Val

                Q1: How long have people been eating fats---oil butter, lard, meat, eggs etc? A: Since the stone age. Q2: When did people start having heart attacks? A: The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that four (4) people had died of this heretofore unknown disease in 1912. Q3: If fats are causing heart disease in the twentieth (and now twenty-first) century, why did fats not cause heart attacks in the nineteenth century, or the eighteenth, or any century back to the stone age? A: ??? Until you can provide a satisfactory answer to Q3, I am not going to take fat-phobic hysteria seriously. Bonus Q4: Since heart disease usually takes a couple of decades to develop, what changes took place in the American diet in the 1890's? A: Food processors developed ways to refine grains and sugars cheaply, allowing what used to be rare treats (white bread, sugary deserts) to become everyday fare. Also, organic chemists in Germany developed industrially produced hydrogenated fats (shortening and margarine) to serve as a cheaper alternative to natural fats such as lard and butter. This was perhaps the biggest change in the human diet since the transition from hunting/gathering to agriculture. And a couple of decades later, people started developing this new ailment, coronary heart disease. To the extent that diet causes this disease, does it make more sense to blame it on foods that people have been eating all along----or on the new stuff?

                1. re: mwhitmore

                  I'm not clear on where this factoid about heart disease being a rare and previously unknown disease in 1912 (do you have a reference to the Journal of the American Medical Association article you think says this?), but it isn't true. The top 10 causes of death in the USA in 1900, per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), were as follows (the first number is the total number for the year; the second number is the rate per 100,000 people in the population):

                  All causes: 343,217 || 1,719.1 ||
                  Pneumonia (all forms) and influenza: || 40,362 || 202.2
                  Tuberculosis (all forms): || 38,820 || 194.4 ||
                  Diarrhea, enteritis, and intestinal ulcers: 28,491 || 142.7
                  Diseases of the heart: 27,427 || 137.4 ||
                  Stroke: 21,353 || 106.9 ||
                  Nephritis (all forms) : 17,699 || 88.6 ||
                  All accidents : 14,429 || 72.3 ||
                  Cancer and other malignant tumors -: 12,769 || 64.0 ||
                  Senility (meaning attributed to old age — not necessarily dementia): 10,015 || 50.2 ||
                  Diphtheria : 8,056 || 40. ||
                  http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/lead...

                  As you can see, heart disease was the #4 cause of death, and was responsible for over 27 thousand deaths in that year alone in the USA — and stroke was right behind it, with tens of thousands more deaths attributable to it. And one of the reasons heart disease and stroke didn't kill even more people was that so many people didn't live long enough, dying instead of infectious diseases that we would later prevent or cure with vaccines, antibiotics, and sanitation.

                  1. re: mwhitmore

                    Quick google search shows average age of first heart attack in men is age 65. Average life expectancy of a male in 1912 was 47.

                    1. re: youareabunny

                      <Quick google search shows average age of first heart attack in men is age 65. Average life expectancy of a male in 1912 was 47.>

                      Clearly this demonstrates that the introduction of McDonald has increased the life expectancy.

                      :)

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        But we're living longer with more chronic illnesses and profitable medicatrions, not healthier. JUST longer.

                        1. re: mcf

                          We are probably still healthier. I mean if we used to die around 50 years old, and most of us today are still very healthy in our 50's, I think it is clear that people back then were sicker at an earlier age.

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            There is an argument that average life expectancies for previous generations are skewed by high infant mortality rates, and that once people actually managed to survive childhood, they lived as long as people do now.

                            People did still die of accidents and infections that we are better able to respond to now, though, of course.

                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                              I don't think most of as *are* healthier in our 50s, not with 50% the projected diabetes rate just a few years down the road, and starting in childhood now.

                              1. re: mcf

                                Noting class difference resolves many supposed contradictions about whether "we" are healthier in middle- and old-age. There's rising diabetes, but skewed to the lower end of the economic spectrum; there's more people feeling that "Being 50 is the new 40," but that's skewed to a class with more money and education. Both are truths of our current "modern" world.

                                1. re: Bada Bing

                                  I'm not sure that's true about actual health, vs. longevity, though. As a nation spending more than just about anyone in the world on health care, that money is not buying better health for us, just higher drug and medical industry profits.

                                  There's a lot of med literature finding that more folks are living longer, but with poor health.

                      2. re: mwhitmore

                        In centuries past, most humans performed far harder physical labor than is typical in the developed world now. Even the popularization of exercise gyms is only a few decades old. Before that, you used manual typewriters and lawnmowers and snow shovels and if you were a woman you probably carried your grocery bags home because many women did not drive. Nor were there remote controls on entertainment appliances. People moved a lot more, which is better for cardiovascular health, regardless of what, and how much, food they ate. As for the frequency of heart disease, until the last few centuries, medicine was far too primitive to recognize types and causes of illness, and the average lifespan was half of what it is now. Because there was no Dr. Alley Oop to paint autopsy results on the walls of Lascaux or Altamira, you think there were no paleolithic heart attacks? Changes in diet may have affected the heart disease rate in 1900, and if so, they are not limited to the ones you mention. The steam engine allowed growth in trade which made a greater and less seasonal variety of food available. Feed lots replaced pasture/prairie livestock grazing, to name a few.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          But it was the 20 years post food pyramid implementation that changed "adult onset diabetes" into a pediatric disease.

                          1. re: mcf

                            The Food Pyramid was not and has never been "implemented" in the population at large. The Food and Nutrition Board, via the Food Pyramid, rightly or wrongly advised Americans to eat less fat. No one at the Food and Nutrition Board ever advocated that people should hold their fat and protein intake constant while adding hundreds of Calories of sugars and refined grains into their diets, which is what's occurred since the Food Pyramid was promulgated and the epidemic of obesity and diabetes has swept over the nation.

                            http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrh...

                            See also:
                            Chanmugam P, Guthrie JF, Cecilio S, Morton JF, Basiotis PP, Anand R. Did fat intake in the United States really decline between 1989-1991 and 1994-1996?
                            J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Jul;103(7):867-72.
                            PMID: 12830026 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
                            http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/...
                            (The link is to text only -- no figures).

                            Moreover, obesity and diabetes rates are climbing in nearly every nation on earth, not just the ones where authorities recommended cutting fat intake — and for the same reason: intake of sugars and highly refined grains has skyrocketed. More Calories make you gain weight, and if that weight is visceral fat, you're on the road to diabetes.

                            1. re: FoodAsMedicine

                              20 years of grain based, restricted fat dieting is all it took. Not centuries of industrialization.

                              1. re: mcf

                                People have been eating grain and other starches for thousands of years. It's not the recent change you're looking for. You can look at trans fats and refined fake food for most of the recent problem.

                            2. re: mcf

                              Americans don't follow the Pyramid. They follow the Golden Arches.

                        2. re: Val

                          "Fats are NOT healthy."

                          This statement, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with the nervous nutritional nellies who treat food as if it's medicine. It's a blanket statement, singling out one food or ingredient as Bad Bad BAAAAAAD.

                          (And by the way -- the word "healthy" in this context is just plain wrong. The word most of these nutria-nuts want is "healthful.")

                          NOTHING is unhealthful in moderation.

                          1. re: jmckee

                            There is no meaningful definition of "moderation" that applies to all or even most. It's an unmreasurable term.

                            For me, "moderation" to the point of "healthful", given my individual circumstances means cutting out starches and sugars.

                            For others, such changes are typically preventive.

                            YMMV.

                        3. re: mcf

                          Deep frying is not unhealthy if you a frying at the correct temperature.

                          1. re: Candy

                            I never said it was unhealthy.

                            But it can be, especially if batter is involved.

                            Unless you think fried dough is health food.

                            1. re: Candy

                              The correct temperature is ≤100ºC, which is incompatible with frying ;-) .

                          2. Using oil in moderation is not unhealthy -- for most people anyway. Of course, if you are in some special situations, then it is a different matter.

                            I think deep frying and breading is a different case altogether, so let's leave that alone for now.

                            For pan frying, it is better to use light olive oil or refined olive oil, and not use extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point and is not ideal for pan frying (or any frying). Other than that, I think you are fine.

                            19 Replies
                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                  Note that virgin and extra virgin have pretty darned high smoke points. I always use EVOO, i guess my temp range is well within those parameters. I don't pan fry, but I sear and I saute quite a lot.

                                  1. re: mcf

                                    What's the official difference between "pan fry" and "sear"?

                                    For example, on Sunday I put two chicken breasts in a stainless steel skillet along with a tablespoon and a half of grapeseed oil. I cooked on one side for five minutes, flipped over, cooked for five, fliped two more times until done. Did I "sear" or "pan fry" these chicken breasts? What are the health / taste implications of the methods?

                                    1. re: Adelphos33

                                      Different people use the term "pan fry" in different ways, but I believe the correct definition is to fry food in an inch or so of oil - different than deep frying, where the food is entirely submerged, but also different than sauteing, where there's usually just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Pan frying is often used in recipes like fried chicken, where you couldn't saute the food but you might not want it fully submerged in oil.

                                      1. re: biondanonima

                                        That's more of a shallow fry. A pan fry is basically the same technique as a sear but with a wider range of temperatures. Here's a pretty good guide to the various dry-heat stovetop cooking methods: http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/07/as...

                                        1. re: nokitchen

                                          There are as many definitions of each as there are articles, experts and cooks discussing them. :-)

                                      2. re: Adelphos33

                                        I think there is a lot of overlaps between these techniques. To me, pan frying and searing have overlaps (which mean they can sometime mean the same thing), but there are obvious differences too (when they are different).

                                        Searing refer to a higher temperature application where the crust to form in the food products (usually meats). For example, you can sear a steak first on a very hot cast iron cookware and then finish the cooking in an oven. You won't call this pan frying. Searing also usually applies to a larger object as well, like a piece of steak, while as pan frying can be done to any size. For example, you can pan fry diced celery, but you don't sear diced celery.

                                        http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-qL2cAryNJQY...

                                        As for saute, it is usually a technique for small size food, and usually refer to a higher temperature application than pan frying (however, more than often the two temperature ranges overlap). You can saute vegetables and chopped meat by jerking or tossing the foods in a pan, but you don't saute a slab of steak.

                                        As for health implications, everyone will say different things, so I will leave it at that. Some will say saute is healthier because the cooking time is shorter and less oil is used. Others will say that saute is worse because the cooking temperature is higher and therefore more radicals are formed....etc.

                                        1. re: Adelphos33

                                          The differeince is depth of oil and sometimes, whether you're just searing in a pan, then finishing the dish in the oven by roasting or braising, for examples.

                                        2. re: mcf

                                          It's a handy chart, but it pulls together some disparate sources with possibly inconsistent assumptions.

                                          For example, EVOO. Your Oil May Vary! The smoke range of EVOOs varies with composition, and I have seen some in my own kitchen smoke below the temp. where butter does (it is something I pay attention to, and I have some longtime print sources that address fat smoke points, but they aren't online like that chart).

                                          For such reasons, some cooking authorities have long pointedly reserved "extra-virgin" olive oils for dressing and condiment use -- the good ones do carry a fine olive flavor unlike many cooking oils -- while using them only for limited roles as cooking fats. Unlike peanut oil or grapeseed oil, which are famous for high-temperature stability.

                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                            In decades, I haven't had an issue, and I only have EVOO. I don't tend to do the extreme temps, though.

                                            1. re: mcf

                                              Maybe it is just the way we cook or maybe my brand of extra virgin olive oil, but I have had problem of excessive smoking during cooking. I remember the excessive smoking, and only then I read about the lower smoke point.

                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                I don't do a lot of very high heat frying. I have some peanut oil to mix in when I do.

                                                1. re: mcf

                                                  Anyway, I am sure the original poster (Adelphos33) will sort it out. If he/she sees excessive smoking, then it is pretty straight forward what to do: either turn the heat and cook at a lower temperature or to use a different oil.

                                                2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                                  I sear steak at smoking hot so don't use olive oil or else it'd be much more than smoking hot. I usually use grapeseed or safflower but for everything else EVOO seems to work even to sear chicken breasts or pork chops.

                                      3. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                        Evoo has a high enough smoke point that its fine for sautéing. It's what I use.

                                        Batali deep fries in evoo.

                                        1. re: C. Hamster

                                          My point upthread, which seems to've been missed by some people, is that EVOO smoke point depends on its detailed composition, which varies considerably in products sold under that name in the US. You may personally have experienced only high-smoking EVOOs but, again, I have not always been so lucky.

                                          Enig, the lipid chemist, in her book on food fats which I just checked, quotes olive oil smoke points as low as 280 Fahrenheit, and again, some cookbook authors I've read reserve virgin olive oils mainly (not exclusively) for other uses than as cooking oils (even if you personally have not encountered that info).

                                          No such ambiguities attach to the more refractory oils like peanut and grapeseed. That distinction was my main point earlier.

                                          1. re: eatzalot

                                            " some cookbook authors I've read reserve virgin olive oils mainly (not exclusively) for other uses than as cooking oils"

                                            That's usually due to cost, they say. Why use the pricey stuff to cook, rather than dressing where you taste its goodness, vs. cooking with the cheap stuff.

                                            1. re: eatzalot

                                              "Enig, the lipid chemist"

                                              Is my new Internet handle, aka Carlos Danger

                                        2. You do not need anything close to a tbsp of oil to saute a piece of fish. A tsp is enough. You do not have "half" of the oil in the pan left over. The liquid in the pan is part oil, part water exuded by the meat and veg you are cooking.

                                          Paul Prudhomme recommends oiling the food before cooking it, rather than oiling the pan. This works better with a non-stick or well-seasoned cast iron pan than with other surfaces, but even if you need more oil, just film the bottom of the pan. There is no need, in sauteeing, to have any measurable depth of oil. Also, you do not need to oil fish when baking it. The oil is to keep the top from drying out but you can top the fish with marinated vegetables before baking. They add flavor and moisture.

                                          No oil is needed when searing/sauteeing meats and skin-on chicken. Start very briefly on medium-low heat just until some fat is released, then crank to higher heat for sauteeing, higher still for searing.

                                          6 Replies
                                          1. re: greygarious

                                            The OP didn't ask if oil was needed, just if it is unhealthy. Good research says no. The rest is just about taste or personal preference.

                                            1. re: mcf

                                              The OP indicates that weight loss is part of the motivation for eating in a more "healthy" manner. Not using more oil than necessary is a factor in achieving that goal.

                                              1. re: greygarious

                                                No, it's not a necessary factor. Fat does not make you fat. That's totally outdated bad information.

                                                1. re: weezieduzzit

                                                  I did not write "necessary factor" now, did I? Not adding unnecessary calories to a portion affects one's weight. If you take in more calories than you use, you will gain weight. Nothing outdated about that concept!

                                                  1. re: greygarious

                                                    The outdated part is the fact that fat calories are more benign in terms of fat storage excess than carbs and protein are.

                                                    The other outdated part is too endocrine related to be on topic here.

                                                2. re: greygarious

                                                  Not as much as you might think, esp by a mere 2 tsps per pan.

                                            2. It's fine you need fats and oils and it helps transfer heat. Also a smidge of salt might enhance the flavors of your food. I am quite salt-sensitive and limit my use of salt but even still it has a purpose. A great part of cooking at home is that you can maximize it's benefits with your own control.