Oils, like any other food, aren't either good for you or bad for you, they're simply better or worse for you when compared to other foods. Oils shouldn't be avoided because they're a "bad food" and it's true that certain oils like extra virgin olive oil are certainly less bad for you than than other oils like coconut, corn, and palm. Even so, it's important to keep in mind that less damage is still damage.
From a health perspective, there's no reason to include oil in our diets. Most of us have about 2200-2500 calories in our calorie bank for the day, so it doesn't make sense to eat a highly refined, calorically dense food product, when instead we could be spending those calories on whole, unprocessed plant foods, which provide necessary fiber and nutrients.
For the most part, I don't use any oil in my home cooking, and ever since learning to use the right substitutions and methods I don't find myself missing it at all. Lately, I rarely seek out specifically oil-free recipes since it's become easy enough to make any recipe I find without any oil.
A few reasons to avoid oil:
- Within hours of ingesting any kind of oil arteries stiffen and their ability to dilate is impaired.
- The Mediterranean Diet is healthy in spite of olive oil- not because of it. The lowered heart attack risk on this diet is due to the high consumption of whole plant foods rather than the addition of olive oil.
- The plaque that builds up in our arteries causing arterial lesions and blockages can only be cleared up by reducing total fat intake, not by choosing different "better" kinds of fats.
- By age 10, almost all kids have fatty streaks in their arteries which is the first sign of atherosclerosis, the leading cause of death in the United States. So most of us should be eating for the purpose of reversing the heart disease that we likely already have.
How to cook without oil on the stovetop:
- Use nontoxic, nonstick cookware made of stainless steel, enamel-coated cast iron, or ceramic titanium.
- Instead of frying vegetables in oil, use small amounts of vegetable broth, water, vinegar, or tamari/coconut aminos to keep things from sticking to the pan.
- The key to this method is to add whichever liquid you're choosing a few teaspoons at a time. Just enough to release some steam and keep things from getting stuck to the pan, but not so much that the vegetables are sitting in a puddle. The pan should be hot enough that the liquid you add boils away somewhat quickly, but never turn the heat higher than medium-high to protect your pan from heat damage. Once it boils away completely, add another very small splash of liquid and stir things around to free them up again. Repeat this process until your food is fully cooked.
- Note that things won't always brown as much when using this method vs. when using oil. If want to something to brown or char slightly, let all of the liquid evaporate from the pan, or don't use any liquid in the first place, then let the food cook in the dry pan while watching carefully to see when it browns. Once it browns, you can add a very small amount liquid to the pan stop it from overcooking and burning or remove it from the pan entirely depending on the recipe.
- Consider the temperature of the pan. Too much liquid added in during cooking time will cool down the pan and greatly slow down the cooking speed, so be sure to add as little as possible. Or if you accidentally add too much, adjust the temperature so it can boil again and evaporate away.
How to bake without oil:
- For baking, I like to use silicone cookware. It's nontoxic and the flexibility of it allows baked goods to just pop right out, no greasing the pan needed.
- Some baked dessert recipes call for cups full of oil. When this happens there are many options for replacements: nut butters, dairy-free yogurts, applesauce, sweet potato or squash puree, pureed prunes or dates, or mashed banana.
- When choosing an oil replacement in baking, take into consideration the recipe you're making and try to discern what the oil is being used for in that specific case (to add moisture, to add structure, etc.) . Be sure to also choose a replacement with a flavor or texture that would best suit that particular recipe.
- This sometimes takes a bit of trial and error, but after a few attempts you'll find what works best for any given recipe.
How to roast without oil:
- Instead of greasing the baking sheet, use a silpat or parchment paper to keep the pan lean and the veggies from sticking
- Use another liquid to get the spices to stick to what you're roasting such as water, vegetable broth, tamari, maple syrup, mustard, vinegar, etc. depending on the recipe (full list down below).
- If you have a spray bottle, it can really help to use that to mist water or liquid of choice on to the vegetables you're roasting, then toss to coat with seasonings.
- Oil-free roasted veggies can dry out, but to avoid this as much as possible roast them low and slow
- To achieve a shiny glaze on the surface of the vegetable without any oil, brush on some aquafaba, aka the liquid brine from a can of chickpeas or other white beans.
- Give them some room to breathe and don't overcrowd the pan- this should help them to get more brown and crispy.
- Another trick to get your veggies to brown more is to use a glass baking dish with no parchment paper at all, just place the chopped veggies right on the glass. This will help them to get slightly more brown than if you used parchment paper.
- Make sure to chop everything you plan to bake in chunks that are pretty much the same exact size to prevent uneven cooking.
- Stir the roasted vegetables around a bit after about 10 minutes of cooking to ensure they don't get stuck to the pan if you're not using parchment paper or other non-stick surface.
Deep Frying Alternatives
My favorite kitchen appliance by far is my Air Fryer.
It makes any whole plant food I put in there turn into the most crunchy and evenly crispy treat, all with no oil needed!
It's very easy to use and clean, and the best part about it is you don't have to wait for it to preheat.
This device has greatly cut down on the amount of time I spend in the kitchen and it makes the best crispy tofu I've ever had.
While it's not necessary to have an air fryer to eat an oil-free diet, it certainly makes it a lot easier!
What to Use Instead of Oil
I mentioned previously that I like to use a glass spray bottle to evenly spritz my roasted veggies with liquid. While this isn't necessary, I find that it makes it much easier to lightly coat the veggies with a liquid instead of using oil.
While these liquid oil-substitutes wont prevent stuff from sticking to the pan (that's what parchment paper is for!) and they will evaporate over the cooking time, they still add in a bit of moisture to help prevent things from drying out while roasting and impart a really nice flavor.
It's also been nice to have a reason to save my cooking broth rather than pour it down the drain, especially when I make a nice salty broth and use lots of flavorful fresh herbs. These cooking liquids are so much more flavorful than most oils.
Here are some of my favorite oil-alternatives for roasting veggies:
- Tamari (low-sodium)
- Coconut aminos
- Vegetable broth
- Leftover cooking broth, the one I'm using now is leftover from cooking white beans and thyme
- Aquafaba, or the liquid from a can of chickpeas or other bean
- Vinegar, such as apple cider vinegar or balsamic
- Leftover liquid from steaming vegetables, a.k.a. pot liquor such as from steamed beets, potatoes, greens, etc.
Those are all of my best tips for cooking without oil! Hopefully you've found these tips helpful and can start to cook oil-free with confidence.
It will definitely take some time and experimentation to get it right the first few times you try this but after a while it will become much more intuitive. Expect a little trial and error in the learning process. Cooking without oil isn't the easiest thing- my partner calls it cooking on hard-mode, and that's exactly what it feels like initially, but once you get the hang of it you'll have a valuable skill that could actually improve the quality of your life and your long-term overall health.
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