Oils for Cooking: A Basic Introduction

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So fairly recently, due to some health stuff, I’ve been made aware of the benefits of a Mediterranean diet (the eating approach, not just Mediterranean flavors!). Part of this type of eating approach, is including healthy fat through oils in your diet. I use oils for cooking fairly frequently, but I did what I always do, and looked into the topic for some fun research.

Wow. Oils for cooking, that’s a big topic. Seriously, like wine or beer (you can even go olive oil tasting, at least here in CA!) oils for cooking can range based on region of origin, the way its made, and its overall purpose. I could write a dozen or more posts on oils alone! But, after my recent posts How to Make Vinaigrette, and Basil Balsamic Vinaigrette, I realized that a basic introduction to cooking oils, might be helpful, not only for vinaigrettes, but for general kitchen knowledge.

Now, I’m no oil connoissuer, not yet anyway. There really are A LOT of oils out there. Different olives from different regions, pressed and extracted in different ways, makes a different product. And that’s just olive oil.

What I want to do, is write a solid introduction to oils for cooking. One that will answer some common questions. At least the ones I had. I’ll also provide you with some solid resources for learning more. These are articles that I read personally, that helped illuminate the world of cooking oils even further.

Types of Oils: To Cook or Drizzle

When I approach oils for cooking, I generally separate them into three categories. High heat, low heat, and no heat. High heat are the cooking oils. These are the heavy hitters who can take on heat and help take your raw food to beautifully crisp and caramelized perfection. Low heat are the oils that probably shouldn’t be used above a medium setting on your burner. Lastly, no heat, are the finishing oils. These oils have great flavor, and go well in vinaigrette or drizzled over finished dishes to help draw out  and accent the flavor of the final product. Some oils, are switch hitters, with high smoke points, and but great for that final splash. As I mentioned in the How to Make Vinaigrette post, I use canola oil in many dressings, but it’s also a high heat oil. This is why understanding your oil choices can be so important.

Cooking Oils: Smoke Point and Application

When choosing the best oil for cooking, it’s important to consider a few key things. Primarily, what are you using it for? For sauteing, sweating, and other low heat cooking tasks, an oil with a lower smoke point would work. For searing and pan or deep frying, a higher smoke point is necessary. Cooking delicate vegetables? Perhaps an oil with its own flavors aren’t the best choice. Deep frying  meat? Certain oils might even compliment and enhance the flavors there.

Let’s walk through the basics of oil characteristics.

What Is a Smoke Point?

Smoke point is, simply put, the temperature at which an oil will begin to smoke. When an oil hits it’s smoke point, it’s too hot, and the oil begins to break down and burn. While this isn’t necessarily harmful, we never want this in our cooking. Both flavor and oil quality degrade quickly after the smoke point is reached. The higher the smoke point, the more heat the oil can take before it begins to burn.

Here’s the trouble, the same type of oil, produced from different manufacturer’s or in different regions, can have vastly different smoke points. Helpful, right? So how does one know what to pick? A general rule of thumb, is that unrefined oils have a lower smoke point that refined oils. Refining an oil applies heat to the oil during the extraction process, removing impurities and stabilizing the oil. Sounds pretty good, but it’s a tad deceptive. Refined oils also generally have less flavor, and some lose their nutritional value during the process. For certain kitchen tasks, this is okay, for others, like drizzling over a fresh spinach salad, unrefined is the way to go.

Not all unrefined oils have low smoke points, but the natural oils that have high smoke points, are often pricier options like grapeseed, safflower, and avocado oils.

Applying Smoke Point to Cooking Methods

With smoke point in mind, you can better choose an oil for cooking that will withstand your chosen cooking method. For sauteing, sweating, or low heat roasting, an oil with a smoke point of 350°F or above would work, pure olive oil for example would be okay for this. When searing meat, pan frying, or roasting at higher temperatures, choosing an oil that’s higher than 400°F is my general rule of thumb. Canola oil is my go-to for this, a refined and neutral flavored oil.

For deep frying, you’ll need a high smoke point. Most foods are deep fried between 350 and 400°F, meaning you can use canola oil for this, if you’re careful and use a thermometer to monitor the temp. I personally, prefer to use an oil with a smoke point above 400°F. Peanut oil is a good choice for this, with a smoke point around 450°F, but some argue it has a mild flavor. I however, do not experience any added flavor when frying with peanut oil.

There are many, many other oils for cooking however. Just olive oil alone comes in extra virgin, virgin, pure, extra light, and light. It’s enough to make you dizzy, even if you’re like me and love to research food. While testing for yourself is always a good idea, knowing where to start can help.

There are a ton of great resources out there to help you choose oil. But…I know skimming through articles all about oils for cooking isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I’ve listed a few that I enjoyed to help ease your searching. Each link will help in identifying oils both for cooking and for finishing.

Oils For Cooking: Helpful Articles

This an article on Cooking Oils by Huffington Post. I find diverse list of oils helpful as each includes general smoke points and ideal applications. However, their information on the health levels of a few oils, namely corn and coconut, I’ve found contradicted on other, more reliable health sources.

For instance, check out this article on Types of Fat by Harvard University. They discuss the healthy types of fats we should include in our diets, and good sources of them. Healthy fats in our diet is actually very good for us, in moderation. They also link you to an easy to understand chart in the article, which lists the healthy fat sources, and some notes about coconut oil at the bottom. Very useful!

Just for added discussion on high smoke point oils, I found this brief but informative article about 5 Right Oils for Frying by ZLiving. This article is extremely useful if you’re a fan of fried foods. I very rarely pan or deep fry, but understanding the versatility of the oils listed may bring some of them into my pantry for other cooking methods.

Storage is also important. Did you know that heat, air, and light exposure can decrease an oil’s shelf life? Infrequently used oils are best purchased in small quantities and dark bottles. For oils you use more often in larger amounts; keep them in dark cupboards away from heat. Check out this article by RecipeTips.com that discussed rancidity and storage for different oils and fats. This article changed the way I store my oils for cooking.

Finally, a guide to olive oil. It is by far one of the broadest oil categories you can delve into. Check out this article all about Olive Oils by Kitchn. They discuss the olive oils I previously mentioned in greater detail, along with how they’re made, and what you might be able to use them for.

Oils to Drizzle and Savor

So what about those flavorful oils used for dressings, drizzling, and finishing dishes? High heat and low heat oils can be used for finishing a dish, so deciding on which oils to stock can be tough.

Flavor is a main contributing factor here. While I use canola oil in vinaigrette, it’s always in tandem with extra virgin olive oil. The difference in flavor is noticeable, and important. For instance, I don’t think you’d ever catch me drizzling peanut oil on a salad.

Another factor is price. Many of the oils that have high enough smoke points to make them good for high heat cooking, also have prices that may dissuade you from using them for such tasks. These might be best saved for finishing purposes, no matter their smoke points.

Avocado and grapeseed oils have really high smoke points, and some good health benefits, and great flavor. But, the high price tag on those babies is nothing to sneeze at. One bottle of avocado oil, at 16 fl oz starts around 10 dollars. You need at least two bottles to deep fry. At least. That’s the price of two entire gallons (128 fl oz each) of canola oil. Odds are, I’m not spending 20$ to deep fry chicken, if I could spend about 3.50$ for an oil that works just as well.

If you’re going to spring for the expensive stuff, my advice is to use them in small cooking tasks, or to savor them in their uncooked state by adding them as a drizzle.

Last But Not Least: No Heat Oil

There is an oil that should probably be saved for finishing a dish alone. My no heat oil: Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This particular oil is delicate in flavor, unrefined, and loaded with health benefits. In it’s pure form, plain extra virgin olive oil is delicious for vinaigrette, salads, and adding an extra roundness to pasta sauces. That’s just a few ideas. It’s so good for flavoring in fact, that it’s the oil used most often when making infused oils.

Oils for Cooking infused oil examples, lime and garlic made by infusing extra virgin olive oil with flavorful additions.

What’s an Infused Oil?

Infused oils are exactly what they sound like. It’s usually extra virgin olive oil, infused with other flavors. They are made in various ways. Some are made by steeping flavoring ingredients in the oil, such as herbs or garlic. Others are made with extracts. I’ve had lemon oil, lime oil, and currently have a garlic oil made with garlic extract.

Oils for cooking example of an infused garlic oil made with garlic extract.

Other oils, like truffle oil, is made by infusing the extra virgin olive oil with the essence, or aroma, of the added flavor. (Surprise! It’s not oil squeezed from truffles!) This is done by mechanically inserting gasses into the oil. This may sound unappealing to you, but I have and will again, purchased truffle oil made this way. The intense flavor I get from just a few drops in amazing. These oils can be very high quality, and no matter the method of infusing flavor, I highly recommend seeking them out.

Oils for cooking example of truffle oil, made with a gas not an extract.

If you end up with an infused oil made with only extra virgin olive oil, I would reserve them for finishing a dish only. If however, you have purchased a flavored oil with extra virgin and canola oil together, they can be used in some medium heat cooking. I have found that truffle oil loses its potency when exposed to heat, but sauteing fresh vegetables in my garlic oil blend is a favorite way to add flavor.

You can even make you’re own infused oils! This is fun, but be careful, there are some unsafe ways to do this. While garlic and lemon oils sounds yummy, adding any fresh product that contains water (like garlic, citrus, fresh herbs etc) can lead to bacterial growth in your homemade infused oil. To avoid this, stick with dried or preserved additions. You can read this article from The Olive Oil Source on Infusing Oils to learn how to safely create your own infusions.

Personal Pantry: Oils for Cooking I Keep

Just to finish up this brief introduction to oils for cooking, I thought I’d talk about what I use in my kitchen.

For a low heat saute or sweating I stick with pure olive oil, especially if I think the olive oil will add good flavor. I also keep canola oil for higher heat cooking. This is my go to for searing meat, pan roasting or frying. It’s neutral, inexpensive, and is up to most of my kitchen tasks. For really high heat I keep peanut oil on hand. As I said before, I don’t deep fry often, but when I do crave those homemade buffalo wings, I go out specifically to buy a jug of peanut oil. It takes the worry out of the equation, and I’ve never noticed any residual flavoring. I do keep a small bottle in my pantry, and use it with my cast iron or other high heat conductors for searing steaks or roasts. It let’s me get that beautiful dark sear without accidental oil burning.

Oils for cooking, my go to pantry oils include peanut oil for high heat, canola oil for high heat, and olive oil for low to medium heat cooking.

I also keep extra virgin olive oil in my pantry. I happen to like pure olive oil for tuna salad, or finishing heavier sauces, but I do love the extra virgin olive oil flavor for dressings and drizzling. I’m a really big fan of flavored oils too, and frequent my local store Amphora Nueva (they’ll ship to you!) for their variety of high quality infused oils.

oils for cooking extra virgin olive oil is a great utility oil for finishing sauces, making dressings, and drizzling over finished dishes due to its rich flavor.

Oils For Cooking: A Basic Introduction

I hope this basic introduction on oils for cooking will help you decipher the wide world of choices available to you. Testing out different types will help you discover what’s right for you and your cooking style. Be sure to check out the links above for more detailed information on particular oils, temperatures, and flavors, as well as potential health benefits. As always, Happy Eating!

 

 

Nutrition information and cooking times are provided as a best estimate. Values may vary based upon ingredients and equipment.

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