Ask the chef

by Ari LeVaux

Q: Dear Flash,

I hear that you’re not supposed to use olive oil for frying. But I’m vegan, so my oil options are limited, and olive oil is my favorite! If it’s true that olive oil is bad for frying, can you recommend a substitute?

–Frazzled Frybaby

A: The frying-with-olive-oil debate boils down to the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke – also known as the “smoke point.” The smoking of oil, like the smoking or burning of anything else, indicates a chemical reaction in which new and potentially harmful compounds can be created.

Different olive oil extraction processes produce different varieties, including “light” (highly filtered), “virgin” (low acidity, no refined oils), “extra-virgin” (first pressing, no heat or chemicals used in the extraction), etc.

Of all olive oils, “extra-virgin” is the least heat-tolerant, smoking at 375-405 degrees (F), depending on the oil. As normal deep-frying takes place at 375 degrees, this places extra-virgin olive oil on the edge of appropriate, and the particles that accumulate in oil during frying will quickly lower the oil’s smoke point.

For the hottest frying, consider refined safflower oil, which has a smoke point above 500 degrees. Whatever oil you use, if it does smoke, toss the oil, wash the pan, and start again. Meanwhile, even if the oil doesn’t smoke, there are reasons to reconsider cooking in hot oil.

Scientists have been discovering a growing number of molecules, carcinogenic or otherwise toxic, that are formed when food is cooked at high heat. Heterocyclic amines, for example, are very nasty, and they form when meat is heated above 392 degrees in the presence of oil. And even fry pan vegans like yourself can still worry about acrylamide, which is found in potato chips, roasted nuts and flaked breakfast cereals. Like heterocyclic amines, acrylamide forms only at high temps.

So instead of worrying about which oil is best, why not just turn down the heat? Frying slowly, at low temperatures, can still produce that satisfying brown exterior crisp. Fewer harmful molecules will be produced, and more of the nutrients in your food will survive the cooking and make it into your body.


Q: Dear Flash,

My dog is hooked on grass. Every time I let him outside to do his business, he heads for the first tuft he can find and starts eating. Then, usually, he pukes. What’s going on?

–Puzzled Puke Cleaner

A: The conventional wisdom, PPC, is that dogs eat grass when they “want” to puke. This theory is based on the fact that many dogs do, in fact, puke after they eat grass. Thus, it is thought, the dog must be aware that his or her tummy is upset and eats the grass in order to vomit out whatever the trouble is. It’s also possible that your dog simply likes the taste of grass and doesn’t mind puking afterward.

Some people think dogs get essential nutrients from grass. In fact a product called Barley Dog is promoted as a way to deliver grainy nutrients to canines. According to Green Foods, which makes the stuff, “The problem with eating whole grass is that each blade is covered with microscopic barbs that can irritate your pet’s stomach.” That irritation, they say, is why dogs puke.

So is puking simply a side-effect of your dog’s hunger for nutrients, or is Fido eating grass because he got into your stash of 3-year-old dead frogs?

Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this issue, and the dogs aren’t saying. My favorite theory is that eating grass is a holdover from the ancestral days of wild dogs, when they unintentionally inhaled undigested grass while eating the guts of prey animals. Maybe your dog’s behavior is rooted in nostalgia for the good ol’ days when he ate real animals, guts and all, and not manufactured pet food.


Q: Dear Flash,

My office is in an un-plumbed detached garage in my back yard. For times when my work is interrupted by the urgent call of nature on days when, because of rain or cold, I don’t feel like walking to the house, I keep a thunder mug in the office. I’ve been dumping my thunder mug on my compost pile, and I’m wondering if that’s OK. Is it?

–Streaming Thunder

A: For those who don’t know, thunder mugs were commonly used in days when indoor plumbing was rare and a late-night trip to the outhouse was a rude awakening. According to the online Dictionary of Urban Slang, thunder mugs are widely used on road-trips, too – that is, unless you work for NASA and have really good diapers, like that astronaut who wanted to mess with her boyfriend’s other woman.

Back on earth, it turns out the contents of your thunder mug will be fine on your compost pile. I had to do a little research here, since I haven’t messed around with composting since 2004, when my first chickens began eating kitchen scraps. Since then, the ladies have taken care of whatever would have gone on the compost, turning it into eggs and fertilizer.

But according to J.C. Jenkins in his definitive Humanure Handbook, urine is good for compost piles. It adds nitrogen, which will speed up decomposition, and moisture, a certain amount of which is necessary. But be careful. Too much nitrogen can burn, and too much moisture can turn your pile soggy or even anaerobic. Any urine you add should be balanced with a source of carbon, like leaves, weeds, straw or, ideally, half-rotten sawdust. Just add a little whenever you empty your mug. This will help keep moisture and nitrogen levels where they should be, as well as help eliminate any smell.