An oily holiday

While olive oil is traditionally used to light the hanukkia, there is no such limitation on cooking oil.

Hanukka donuts (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Hanukka donuts
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Much of the symbolism of Hanukka centers on the bravery of the Maccabees in their revolt against the Greek oppressor, a victory of the forces of “light” against the forces of “darkness.”
Equally symbolic is the “miracle of the oil,” the ritual candelabra in the Temple that burned for eight days from an oil jar with sufficient oil for only one day. This latter aspect is commemorated annually by lighting the hanukkia and enjoying oil-based culinary dishes such as doughnuts and latkes.
Back in the time of the Maccabees, things were much simpler in some ways. The choice of oils was limited, and issues such as cholesterol and free radicals did not feature on anyone’s priority list. Olive oil was the oil of choice, for both lighting and cooking.
Today, the choice of cooking oils is staggering and highly confusing, to say the least.
While olive oil is traditionally used to light the hanukkia, there is no such limitation on cooking oil. The purpose of this article is to explore some of the more common cooking oils while touching on the aspects of health, cooking quality and cost.
Fats are classed as saturated (solid at room temperature, e.g., butter) or unsaturated (liquid at room temperature, e.g., olive oil). The liquid, unsaturated fats are split into two subcategories – polyunsaturated (clear when refrigerated, e.g., walnut oil) and monounsaturated (cloudy/ semi-solid when refrigerated, e.g., olive oil). All fats – solid and liquid – have these three types of fats in varying ratios. Solid fats like butter will have a high quantity of saturated fats and a low quantity of unsaturated fats, while liquid fats, such as olive oil, have the opposite.
Research conducted in the 20th century demonized solid, saturated fats as the cause of high cholesterol and heart disease. More recent research has dispelled many former misconceptions, and saturated fats such as butter are making a comeback as a healthier alternative to margarines, for example, which are high in trans fats.
In determining the healthful properties of an oil, factors such as the quantity (and ratio) of essential fatty acids such as omega-3 and omega-6 and linoleic acid are important as are other health-providing compounds such as antioxidants (polyphenols) and vitamins.
As far as cooking quality goes, oil can be used for dressing/seasoning (as in salads) or for cooking/frying. Not all oils are suitable for cooking. Some oils, specifically those with a high ratio of polyunsaturated fats, are unstable and form harmful compounds at high temperatures, making them unsuitable for cooking/frying.
It will probably not come as a surprise to you that olive oil ranks as the healthiest and highest quality cooking oil. It is high in monounsaturated fats and stable at cooking temperatures. If you can afford it, olive oil is the first choice for seasoning and cooking. Unfortunately, there are two downsides. The olive oil industry suffers from insufficient and inadequate enforcement of standards, which creates an opening for all kinds of foul play and unscrupulous companies marketing lowquality olive oil (even overly refined oil meant for lamp lighting) as high-quality cooking oil. The best type is virgin olive oil and not refined oil. Price is not always an indication of quality. One should seek a recognized brand carrying the seal of the Israeli Plants Production and Marketing Board. Needless to say, high-quality virgin olive oil is not cheap.
Nut oils, such as walnut, macadamia and peanut are next on the health list, although many are unstable at high temperatures (with the exception of peanut), which rules them out for frying. They are also pricy.
Seed/legume oils, including but not limited to rape seed (canola), sunflower seed, cotton seed, grape seed, soy bean etc., rank lowest on the health count but score well in the cooking quality and price categories.
These oils are highly refined in an industrial process that includes the use of many synthetic chemicals. There is much controversy surrounding the use of these oils and much conflicting research data.
Other, less common oils, such as avocado oil, palm oil, fish oil, etc. will not be discussed, as they are not readily available.
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and your choice of oil will involve compromise. At least now you have the facts and sufficient knowledge to make an educated choice. Oil’s well that ends well. Happy Hanukka!
Makes 6 doughnuts
There is no such thing as a healthy sufganiya, but this is as healthy as it gets.
Pre-fermented dough
✔ ¾ cup fine whole spelt flour
✔ 1⁄3 cup water
✔ 1 tsp. instant powdered yeast
Mix and leave to rise covered for 90 minutes.
Final dough
✔ 11⁄3 cups fine whole spelt flour
✔ 2 eggs
✔1 tsp. salt
✔ 2 Tbsp. honey
✔ 60 gr. butter (melted)
Mix together with pre-fermented dough and knead for 10 minutes. Refrigerate covered overnight. Roll into a flat layer 1.5 cm. thick. Cut out doughnut shapes using a can or cup (for outer circular shape) and a bottle top (for the center hole – American-style doughnuts). Place on tray and leave to rise for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a pan with olive oil (enough for the doughnuts to float in) to 150° C (use an insertion thermometer). Do not overheat oil or the doughnut will burn on the outside before it is done on the inside.
Fry the doughnut for 2 to 3 minutes on one side and then flip and fry for another 2 to 3 minutes on the other side until golden brown. Remove from oil with slotted spoon and drain on paper towel-covered newspaper.
Let cool. Baste with honey and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Master baker Les Saidel, originally from Johannesburg, lives in Ginot Shomron with his wife and four children. He is CEO of the Saidel Artisan Baking Institute (, which specializes in training and education in the field of organic, healthy, artisan baking and the inventor of Rambam Bread. He also lectures and works as a consultant in the fields of cereal chemistry, health and nutrition.