Recently, I’ve been experimenting with cooking with less oil. Not no oil, per say, but certainly less. Mainly because it’s somewhat of an experiment and challenge for me, but also because there may be health benefits to reducing consumption of oils.
Why No Oil?
I’m well aware that a decent portion of our audience adheres to a whole foods plant-based diet, which generally does not advocate for the use of oils in cooking. Why?
The primary argument is that oil is not a “whole food.” It’s a processed byproduct of a whole food. Avocado oil, for instance, is extracted from avocado, and olive oil is extracted from olives. While those are whole foods that contain fats, when eaten in extracted form (oil) they are no longer considered a whole food. Is that a problem?
What do the Experts Say?
While there are mixed perspectives on whether or not oils have a place in a healthy diet, one of the more influential voices on this topic in the plant-based world is Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study.
Campbell’s primary argument in the oil-free debate is that plant oils have experimentally been shown to promote cancer much more than saturated fats. “In my opinion, this is a primary reason for avoiding consumption of added oils,” says Campbell, adding, “another reason for avoiding these oils is their contribution to total calorie intake which displaces, in effect, the consumption of calorie containing whole, plant foods”. (source)
In other words, oils are calorie dense, with 1 Tbsp of olive oil containing 119 calories and 13.5 grams of fat (source), versus 10 medium olives, which contain about 49 calories and 5.2 g fat (source). From a whole foods plant-based perspective, there’s more nutritional benefit to eating the olives — which contain more iron, copper, calcium, and fiber – than consuming olive oil.
However, there are many points of view on the subject of oil in our diet. Dr. Mark Hyman, for instance, discusses the importance of moving away from inflammatory fats and achieving a more balanced intake of omega-6 vs. omega 3 fatty acids.
It’s also important to recognize that a low- or no-oil diet may not be suitable for everyone. While it could result in consuming more of certain vitamins and minerals from whole food sources, it could also lead to not consuming enough calories or other nutrients. This is especially relevant for those who have a tendency to under-eat or who are experiencing food insecurity.
I’m personally not siding with any one expert in particular. However, I have found it a fun challenge to cook with less oil and something worth trying as our readership does ask for oil-free options regularly.
Is Olive Oil Healthy?
By the way, isn’t olive oil supposed to be the one oil that’s indisputably good for us? It is a part of the health-promoting Mediterranean diet after all.
I found this alternative perspective from Dr. Michael Greger interesting, which suggests the perceived benefits of olive oil may not be as clear cut as we think. There’s also this article arguing for olive oil from Healthline.
Personally, I choose to consume some oil in my diet (avoiding it altogether seems nearly impossible, especially considering I travel and eat at restaurants). But when I do consume oil, I always try to select the highest quality oils possible and use them in limited quantities.
For instance, I’ve been using Brightland olive oil, which is incredibly flavorful and high quality (not sponsored, just love). I use it to dress my salads, and the best part is you don’t need much because the flavor is so fresh and potent. And when I need a little oil for sautéing or roasting, I generally opt for avocado oil.
How to Cook with Less Oil
So, maybe you’re curious and want to start experimenting with cooking with less oil but don’t know where to start. Are we really supposed to give up our vinaigrettes on salads, forgo caramelized onions, and have dried out baked goods? Fortunately, the answer is no.
In this guide I’ll walk you through what I’ve found to be some great hacks for cooking with low/no oil without sacrificing flavor or texture, as well as share some of our favorite oil-free recipes! Let’s get started!
- Low Oil: My go-to technique when cooking with less oil while roasting is to spritz my veggies with a little avocado oil (either a store-bought can, or this spray bottle from Amazon) instead of tossing with tablespoons of oil. Right away, this means you’re evenly coating your ingredients — but with far less oil.
- Low Oil: My second tip is to use a spritz of oil along with maple syrup, which helps your ingredients (especially vegetables) caramelize. I also add in spices to taste (such as sea salt and our go-to curry powder or shawarma spice blend) for more flavor. This creates a tender texture with slightly crisp edges and plenty of balanced flavor!
- Oil-Free: If you’re looking to roast completely oil-free, your friend will be steaming or boiling your ingredients prior to roasting (see photo below), which adds moisture on the front end of cooking, and also cooks your ingredients mostly or all the way through so they won’t get dried out over-baking in the oven. Then, all that’s left to do is add your seasonings of choice and roast on a high temperature (375-425F or 190-218 C). Also, rely on the convection setting if you have it to get your ingredients browned with crispy edges. See this recipe for oil-free roasted vegetables for the full guide.
- Low-Oil: Again, a spritz of oil in your pan will go a long way — and you’re using far less than you would when pouring oil in from a bottle. This technique can also be accompanied by adding a little water as you continue cooking to keep the ingredients from sticking. This can also be done with broth or coconut aminos (or soy sauce). Just know that broth and coconut aminos do add flavor.
- No Oil: Rely on water or broth to sauté ingredients like diced vegetables, onions, and garlic. You’ll need to continue adding a little broth or water at a time to keep the ingredients from sticking to the pan, but it does work (see photo below)! A perfect example of this technique is our 1-Pot Smoky Lentil Vegan Taco “Meat”!
- No Oil: A technique I learned from Thai cooking is to use the fat in coconut milk to sauté your vegetables. Find a great example of that in our 1-Pot Vegetable Green Curry, which I adapted from Hot Thai Kitchen.
- No/Low Oil: Non-stick cookware also allows for oil-free / reduced-oil cooking due to its slick nature, which naturally doesn’t allow foods to adhere to the surface. Although it may not get food quite as crispy and caramelized, it is another good option if looking to reduce or remove oil from your diet. I admittedly haven’t found a durable non-stick, non-toxic pan that I wholeheartedly recommend yet (currently testing the Always Pan, which is non-toxic). So if you have one you love and use, let us know in the comments!
Stews, Soups, and Curries
- No Oil: Perhaps the easiest of all the categories! Simply sauté your ingredients in water or broth (for soups and stews), or coconut milk (for curries) before adding your other ingredients. This works because you’ll be adding additional liquid to cook your ingredients later anyway, namely water, broth, or coconut milk. A perfect example of this is our Creamy Curried Cauliflower Lentil Soup, which easily utilizes water in place of oil for sautéing!
In baking you do still generally need some fat, otherwise your cookies may lack crisp, golden brown texture, and cakes and quick breads may turn out dry and crumbly. Here are some great alternatives to oil in baking:
- Mashed avocado – adds moisture and fat; ideal for quick breads and cakes.
- Dairy-free yogurt – adds moisture and fat; ideal for heavier cakes and quick breads.
- Nut or seed butter – adds moisture, fat, and can help crisp; ideal for quick breads, muffins, cookies, and granola.
- Mashed ripe banana – adds moisture and helps bind; ideal for quick breads, cakes, and even granola.
- Applesauce – adds moisture; ideal for cakes, quick breads, and muffins.
- Less Oil: Sub 1/4-1/2 of the oil in your recipe with one of the above mentioned ingredients for some of that familiar taste and texture oil provides without going completely oil-free!
TIP: When in doubt, a combination of two oil-free substitutes is usually a good idea so one ingredient isn’t shouldering the burden of the substitution. For instance, in place of 1/4 cup olive oil, you may sub 2 Tbsp mashed banana and 2 Tbsp mashed avocado. Or in place of 1/4 cup vegan butter, you may sub 2 Tbsp nut butter and 2 Tbsp applesauce or mashed banana.
Don’t believe oil-free baking is possible? Feast your eyes on the chocolate cake of our dreams. Try our Vegan Gluten-Free (Oil-Free) Chocolate Cake and let us know what you think!
Salad Dressings & Sauces
- Less Oil: Sub half the amount of oil you normally add with water or citrus, depending on the flavor profile you’re going for. For instance, a vinaigrette might look like 1/4 cup lemon juice, 2 Tbsp water, 2 Tbsp olive oil, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Recently, I’ve found an even more simple approach: Tossing my salads with lemon juice and seasonings such as za’atar adds more than enough flavor, and then I only need a drizzle of good olive oil for a little flavor and creaminess. No mixing or emulsion required.
- No Oil: Ditch the dressing altogether in favor of the simplest salad seasoning: Massage kale or toss romaine with a little maple syrup, citrus (lemon or lime), and seasonings of choice such as chili powder or curry powder and a bit of salt. My go-to recently has been lime, maple syrup, chili powder, and salt (photo below)!
- No Oil: Mash avocado or use guacamole as a dressing! Avocado is perfect for dicing and massaging into kale for a creamy dressing substitute.
- No Oil: Dress your salads with salsa or hot sauce. Add a dash of maple syrup and lime to balance out the heat!
- No Oil: When in doubt, tahini dressing. Use tahini or cashew butter in place of oil for a creamier, whole food dressing. You can also use a bit more tahini in place of olive oil when making dips like hummus and baba ganoush!
- No Oil: Omit the oil in our green curry paste and use it as a dressing! It’s also perfect for mixing with a little tahini, lime juice, and maple syrup for a creamy option, such as in this Curried Cauliflower Grape & Lentil Salad!
- No Oil: Another creamy oil-free dressing idea? Mix a little miso paste, rice vinegar, and maple syrup for a savory, salty, tangy dressing with serious umami! Inspired by our Miso-Glazed Brussels Sprouts!
Find more oil-free dressing and sauce ideas in the round-up below!
Find our favorite oil-free (or oil-optional) recipes below! We’ve included sauces & dressings, entrées, sides, snacks, and desserts. Enjoy!
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