Is Pan-Frying Healthy? Are There Alternatives?

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It’s common to hear that something’s fried and instantly think of all the fat and calories it contains. The experts have told us that fried food is unhealthy, but what about pan frying? Is pan-frying healthy, or is all fried food unhealthy and best avoided?

Pan frying can be a healthy cooking method that adds flavor and texture to your food.

Bear in mind that any food or cooking method can be made unhealthy, and most so-called “unhealthy” foods can be made more healthy with the right ingredients and techniques. 

Few absolutes exist when it comes to food, so don’t rule out pan frying as a way to make some tasty meals. 

All Frying Methods Are Not Equal

Many people might picture different cooking methods when they hear “pan frying,” so let’s define the term. Pan frying isn’t anything fried in a pan but instead is a specific cooking method

Let’s be clear about what pan frying is:

  • Add a small amount of oil to a pan and warm it up
  • Once warmed, the oil should cover most or all of the surface of the pan in a thin layer
  • Keep the pan on a low to medium heat and add food

Sauteing vs Pan Frying

Sauteing uses a minimal amount of oil, maybe only a teaspoon or tablespoon, and lightly cooks food. Sauteed onions, for example, are cooked until translucent in a hot, lightly oiled pan for best results.

Pan frying uses more oil than sauteing and requires lower heat. 

Shallow Frying vs Pan Frying

Shallow frying is a cooking method that many home cooks use instead of deep frying. You can shallow fry some foods that restaurants batter and deep fry, like fried chicken.  

Shallow frying requires a deep skillet partially filled with fat so that the battered food is at least halfway submerged. The pieces cook until browned on the bottom, and then they’re flipped over to finish cooking.

Shallow frying uses a little more oil than pan frying.

Deep Frying vs Pan Frying

Deep frying, on the other hand, requires the food to be fully submerged in hot oil. When you eat fried food like French fries, fried chicken, or onion rings from a restaurant, it has been battered, dropped into the basket of a deep fryer, and submerged in oil while cooking. 

This cooking method requires a lot of oil and imparts a lot of fat and calories from the oil to the food. Pan frying, by comparison, uses much less oil to fry the food. In deep frying vs. pan frying, the pan-fried food will be less fatty and less calorie-dense. 

Oil isn’t always unhealthy, though it is calorie-dense. Extra virgin olive oil, for example, is extremely healthy if not overheated, forms part of the mediterranean diet and could properly be regarded as a superfood.

But, typically, in deep frying the oil used is a cheaper, less healthy oil. This is because of the quantity of oil and the need to maintain it at a high temperature. This makes normal deep frying significantly less healthy than pan frying.

Stir Frying vs. Pan Frying

A stir-fried dish uses minimal oil and a large hot pan. Food is quickly moved around on the surface to cook over high heat. 

Pan frying uses more oil than stir frying and a lower temperature. The food is cooked longer in most cases with pan frying, too. 

The Best Ways to Pan Fry

Certain foods and recipes benefit more from pan frying than others, while some dishes require different cooking methods. 

Foods like French fries, for instance, benefit from deep frying. You can bake French fries in an oven to avoid the calories added by deep frying, but doing so changes the taste and texture. Foods that are traditionally deep-fried aren’t good candidates for pan frying. 

To pan-fry food, use enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan, or use less oil with food that will add fat to the pan as it cooks like pork. Bacon produces fat, so no added oil is required. Start bacon in a cold pan for best results. 

Types of Food to Pan Fry

Pan-frying works well with foods that release fat as they cook, like bacon, pork chops, and fatty cuts of meat. The food browns in the pan as it cooks and creates a pleasant color and texture on the outside. 

Pancakes and many egg dishes require frying in fat in a pan or on a flat griddle. Pancakes and eggs are examples of food that don’t release fat as they fry. These foods need fat in the pan that cooks them. 

Most meat dishes you can pan fry require longer cooking times, so the heat will be lower to keep the fat and the food from burning. 

Is Pan Frying Healthy?

Is Pan Frying Healthy?

When people decide how to cook their food, they want to know the healthiest way to make meals delicious. Is pan-frying unhealthy? Should we skip it and opt to bake or air fry food instead?

Labeling pan-frying as unhealthy is unfair. While food will have more calories and fat when pan-fried instead of baked or air-fried without oil, pan frying has a place in most people’s routines. 

Pan frying is healthier than deep frying or shallow frying because the food will absorb less oil and have less fat and fewer calories. 

Food coated in bread crumbs or flour will absorb more oil than unbreaded dishes. You can adjust the fat and calorie content of your meals by frying unbreaded dishes instead.

Is Pan Frying in Olive Oil Healthy?

What about vegetable oils or seed oils that companies advertise as healthy options? Can I fry in those for better health? 

With some non-stick pans, you may need no oil or less than you’d use with something like stainless steel. You can use non-stick pans safely to reduce your oil consumption, but most pan-fried foods require some amount of fat to cook.

Is pan frying in olive oil healthy? Experts tell us olive oil is one of the healthiest fats we can use because it’s rich in monounsaturated fat and antioxidants. 

Can I Pan Fry in Other Oils?

Cold-pressed olive oil is healthier than canola, vegetable, or corn oil that requires chemicals or heat to extract. Olive oil and coconut oil both require less processing than these oils. 

Coconut oil is almost all saturated fat, but it’s rich in lauric acid. Lauric acid might improve people’s overall cholesterol profile. Used within the context of a diet that’s low in saturated fat, coconut oil can be a good choice for occasional pan-frying. 

Unless cooking at high temperatures, I recommend extra virgin olive oil.

Pan Frying Alternatives

Most foods that you can pan fry can be baked or cooked in an air fryer without oil. Breaded foods will benefit from a quick spray of cooking oil for browning and crisping if cooked in an oven or air fryer. 

The texture and taste will be different if you use an alternative cooking method. Baking and air frying are best for people who need to avoid all fat and oil in their diets.

Is Pan Frying Healthy? The Bottom Line

Yes, pan-frying can be a healthy cooking option and part of a balanced diet. This type of frying lets you add flavor and texture to your meals alongside other cooking methods like sauteing and baking. 

Choose the best safe pots and pans for pan-frying to provide your family with healthy meals without the risk of chemicals or other substances leaching into your food.