14 Dec

Beyond the olive: Chefs often dip into the flavors of the world’s other oils

By Steve Barnes,
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Large supermarkets offer a bewildering array of cooking oils. In many stores, the oils section is as long as a Cadillac. At six shelves high, that equals 90-plus feet of various-sized containers, from dainty cut-glass cruets to gallon jugs and cans, all containing viscous fatty liquids that range in color from the palest yellow to the deepest jade. The cost spectrum is just as wide: as little as 10 cents per ounce to $1.50 or more.

Humans have extracted oils from plant matter for thousands of years. Our ancestors first beat nuts, seeds and vegetables to a pulp, then boiled it in water and skimmed off the oil that rose to the surface. In later centuries, they used millstones and mechanical screws, lever presses and hydraulics on peanuts and sunflower seeds, olives and palm kernels and coconut. Technological advances involving heat, pressure and chemical solvents in the 20th century enabled us to extract oil from cottonseed, grape seeds and other products once discarded as waste.

Regardless of the source or method of production, oils have but two basic purposes: cooking and flavoring. Oils make food taste better, and they act as a medium for the uniform transfer of heat to food during the cooking process.

This works in part because oils are all fat. Each tablespoon of oil contains 120 calories, as many as four 8-inch carrots, and 14 grams of fat, the same as a 2-ounce Snickers bar.

The olive king

The current nutritional darling of the oil world is olive oil, a staple of the Mediterranean diet that has been proven, thanks to its high proportion of healthful monounsaturated fats, to simultaneously reduce bad cholesterol while elevating its good twin.

But olive oil has its limitations, among them burning at high temperatures typically used for frying and a flavor more noticeable than other, neutral-tasting oils such as canola, widely considered the most versatile.

Creative cooks also like to cook with diverse oils to take advantage of different tastes and properties. Yono’s restaurant in Albany uses canola oil for deep-frying; a combination of olive and canola and clarified butter for sauteing; cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil for some dressings and vinaigrettes; pumpkin-seed oil for Yono’s house dressing; and mustard-seed, walnut and macadamia-nut oils to finish various dishes.

Yono’s downtown neighbors in the kitchen at Angelo’s 677 Prime rely on at least a half-dozen oils, including a blend of canola and olive for sauteing; corn-canola blends in the fryers; sesame for Asian dishes; extra-virgin olive oil for dressings; truffle-infused olive oil for flavor; and others, including argan oil, a distinctive-tasting staple of Moroccan cuisine.

Mix it up

Andrew Plummer, the executive chef at McGuire’s restaurant in Albany, sautes with a blend of 90 percent canola oil (for its high smoke point) and 10 percent olive oil (for flavor), but he reaches for walnut, almond and truffle oils for their flavor effects.

“I need them all,” Plummer says.

Olive oil is so diverse in its types that it’s essentially a separate category. Use the chart below as a guide to other oils available in supermarkets.

Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com.

Choosing oil: Cooking

Some basics

The oils at right — like all edible oils — contain 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. The oils in this chart contain no trans fats, and have 1 to 3 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon; the remaining fats are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats, considered the most desirable in the diet, raise levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL) and lower levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL). Olive oil has the highest level of monounsaturated fats of all popular cooking oils, at 75 percent (macadamia nut oil is slightly higher).

Polyunsaturated fats reduce both bad and good cholesterol. Among the polyunsaturated fats present in some oils is omega-3 fatty acid, considered especially healthful.

Plant-based cooking oils with high levels of saturated fat include coconut oil (92 percent) and palm oil, also known as dende oil (49 percent).

Note: Many experts recommend looking for cold- or expeller-pressed corn, safflower, sunflower and soybean oils. Highly refined versions of these oils, though widely available and shelf-stable, usually have been treated with chemicals and high temperatures that remove flavor and nutrients. Scientists also believe highly refined versions of these oils, despite their high smoke points, should not be subjected to such extreme heat because they oxidize, which produces trans fats and free radicals that damage cells. Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E protect against free radicals.

A few words about butter: Butter, though 80 percent fat, 63 percent of which is saturated, is better than margarine, a trans fat. And butter does not create free radicals at high temperatures.

Avocado oil

Color/taste: Pale yellow; light, bright flavor.

Pros: Great for salad dressings as well as high-heat cooking; highest smoke point of popular oils; good source of monounsaturated fats and vitamin E.

Cons: More expensive; less widely available; noticeable flavor may not be right for some uses.

Smoke point: 520 degrees

Canola oil

Color/taste: Very pale yellow; almost neutral flavor.

Pros: Exceptionally versatile in all almost all applications; lowest saturated fat of all edible oils; considered to have most healthful balance of mono- and polyunsaturated fats; among the highest levels of monounsaturated fat; high levels of omega-3 fatty acids; widely available; inexpensive.

Cons: Could burn in high-heat frying; taste might be too neutral for uses in which flavor is desirable.

Smoke point: 400 degrees

Corn oil

Color/taste: Deep yellow; noticeable but not overpowering flavor.

Pros: Versatile; high smoke point and good flavor for frying; high in polyunsaturated fats; inexpensive.

Cons: Corn flavor may be unsuited to some uses; high level of omega-6 fatty acids may block absorption of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Smoke point: 450 degrees

Grapeseed oil

Color/taste: Very pale light yellow-green; methods and flavors can vary greatly, very mild to neutral flavor.

Pros: Versatile; very high smoke point; very low in saturated fat; high in polyunsaturated fat.

Cons: More expensive; less widely available; taste might be too neutral for uses in which flavor is desirable; high level of omega-6 fatty acids may block absorption of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Smoke point: 485 degrees

Hazelnut oil

Color/taste: Light to medium brown; pronounced flavor of roasted hazelnuts.

Pros: Distinctive flavor; good for salad dressings, baked goods, sauces, brushed on fish or certain meats after cooking; high in vitamin E and monounsaturated fat.

Cons: Expensive; less widely available; nut oils lose flavor when subjected to high heat; shorter shelf life; better over long periods when refrigerated.

Smoke point: 430 degrees

Peanut oil

Color/taste: Very pale, almost clear; mild to slightly peanuty flavor.

Pros: Versatile; widely available; high smoke point; keeps well for long periods; flavorful for frying.

Cons: Can cause severe to fatal reactions in people with peanut allergies.

Smoke point: 440 degrees

Safflower oil

Color/taste: Very pale yellow; neutral flavor.

Pros: Versatile; very high smoke point; highest level of polyunsaturated fat of any edible oil; can be refrigerated without solidifying.

Cons: Low levels of Vitamin E and monounsaturated fat; high level of omega-6 fatty acids may block absorption of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Smoke point: 510 degrees

Sesame oil

Color/taste: Pale yellow; mild flavor. (Dark oil from toasted sesame seeds, popular in Asian cooking, has a pronounced flavor and is use more as flavoring agent than cooking oil.)

Pros: Good for dressings, condiments and medium-heat stir-fry.

Cons: Flavor might be unsuited to some uses; could burn with high heat.

Smoke point: 410 degrees

Soybean oil

(Most common oil in products labeled “pure vegetable oil”)

Color/taste: Pale yellow to nearly clear; neutral flavor.

Pros: Versatile; widely available; inexpensive; very high smoke point; high level of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Cons: Taste might be too neutral for uses such as dressings, when flavor is desirable; high level of omega-6 fatty acids may block absorption of omega-3s.

Smoke point: 495 degrees

Sunflower oil

Color/taste: Pale yellow; mild to neutral flavor.

Pros: Versatile; widely available; inexpensive; good for mixing with more expensive oils.

Cons: Lower levels of monounsaturated fat than some other oils.

Smoke point: 440 degrees

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