By Erica Marcus,
Q: How many different kinds of oil do I need in my kitchen?
A: You can get by with as few as two — a good-quality extra virgin olive oil and an inexpensive unflavored oil such as canola or corn.
Oil serves three roles in the kitchen. As a texture provider, it creates moistness in baked goods and lends sauces and soups a silky quality. When you saute or fry in oil, you are using it as a cooking medium. Finally, aromatic oils such as olive oil and unrefined nut oils enhance flavor when drizzled raw over a finished dish or used in a salad dressing or mayonnaise.
It’s easy to dispense with “texture provider.” All oils have essentially the same feel, and you would be hard-pressed to distinguish the texture of a cake or salad dressing made with cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from one made with store-brand soybean oil.
The field starts to spread out when it comes to oil as a cooking medium. Different oils have different smoking points (the temperature at which they begin to smoke). The higher an oil’s smoking point, the better it is for frying at high temperatures.
Safflower oil’s smoking point is about 510 degrees; soybean, corn, sunflower and refined peanut oils, 450 degrees; refined (i.e., pure) olive, grapeseed and canola oil, 400 degrees. As for unrefined (virgin or extra-virgin) olive oil, there is some dispute: The Olive Oil Source, a Web site supported by California Olive Oil producers, says that the smoking point ranges from 375 to 400 degrees.
But for frying — usually done between 350 to 375 degrees — any of these oils will do. And the vast majority of cooking done by most people at home isn’t deep-frying anyway. For searing chicken breasts or meatballs or scrambling an egg, any oil — from the most industrial safflower to the most artisanal olive — does the trick.
Sometimes you need an oil with no flavor. You wouldn’t use a strong, fruity olive oil to make a chocolate cake. Any nonflavored oil such as corn or canola would work better.
But for most kitchen tasks, extra-virgin olive oil is a good all-around choice.