08 Apr

Cooking oils bubble over with increasing choices. Here’s a guide

By Christopher Markuns,

Cooking oil used to be so simple.
There was vegetable and there was olive.

Today, simplicity has been supplanted by overwhelming options that can trigger almost comedic dilemmas. Dressing a salad? Will it be almond oil or walnut? Grapeseed is good. So is hazelnut. And if frying is on the menu, canola is nice, but avocado would be a cool twist.

Confused yet? Blame the gourmeting of America. As food television and celebrity chefs introduce us to a growing number of ingredients and techniques formerly the province of restaurants, grocers’ shelves have become choked with oil choices.

And our pantries aren’t far behind. The number of different cooking oils in the average American home has increased 14 percent during the past 6 years, says Harry Balzer, a food analyst for market researcher NPD Group. While that’s a little hard to envision in terms of your pantry shelf, that statistic is an indicator of real growth, Balzer says.

“What you have is a number of people who have gone from one oil to two, and a number of people who used to have two went to three, and so on,” he says.


That increase also can be attributed to growing awareness that not all fats are bad for you, says Jamie Brent, a national grocery manager for natural foods grocer Wild Oats Markets, where specialty oil sales have increased around 15 percent during the past two years.

Knowing that plant-based oils, and most cooking oils are, are mostly heart healthy has helped Americans embrace them. All oil is fattening and must be consumed in moderation, but at least health issues can be mostly set aside when trying to make sense of the choices.

“If it’s liquid at room temperature, it’s OK, probably heart healthy or heart neutral,” says Katherine Tallmadge, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “All oils are better than butter or hard fat.”

To some extent, picking an oil for a particular recipe is a matter of taste. But there are some important factors that can guide that.

Will the oil be consumed raw (as in a salad dressing) or cooked (used for sautéing, frying or baking)? Each oil has a different heat tolerance, the so-called smoke point or temperature at which it begins to smoke and develop foul flavors and odors.

Does the oil have an assertive flavor or is it neutral? Oils used in baking generally should have neutral or nutty flavors, while strong peppery flavors are more desirable in an olive oil used for salads or dipping breads.

Do certain foods have a special affinity for one oil or another? Italian foods pair easily with olive oils, for example, just as sesame oil is good with Japanese foods and peanut is nice with many Thai dishes.

To help you make sense of it all, here’s a list of some of the popular cooking oils and how to use them.

Avocado oil
Avocado oil is getting plenty of attention for its deep-fry friendliness and buttery flavor. While rugged enough to tolerate temperatures up to 520 F, it also offers flavors subtle enough to be appreciated in salad dressings, dips and in a variety of Southwestern dishes. One manufacturer recommends using the oil within 10 months, though it will last much longer. No refrigeration needed. Because avocados are difficult to process, the oil can be expensive.

Canola oil
This refined, neutral-flavor oil can tolerate heat up to 435 F, making it good for sautéing, baking and salad dressings. It keeps well in the cabinet (for up to a year) and has shot up in popularity – 42 percent of homes have some, according to NPD Group.

Grapeseed oil
With a high smoke point and a light, nutty flavor, grapeseed oil is good for any cooked or raw preparation where a strong oil flavor would be unwanted. It is best stored in the refrigerator and keeps for six months.

Extra-virgin olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined, meaning it was not altered chemically or mechanically after being pressed (usually cold pressed to protect it from heat damage). Because of this, extra-virgin oils are more flavorful (they usually have a peppery bite) than refined olive oil. It also makes them more susceptible to heat and light damage. As cooking with them kills much of their flavor, they are best eaten raw (as in salad dressings or drizzling over pasta just before serving). These oils are best young and should be consumed within a year of pressing.

Olive oil
Standard olive oil is the less expensive, less flavorful cousin of extra-virgin olive oil. Because it has been refined, it has a longer shelf life (as with most refined oils it’s about a year unopened, half that after) and tolerates high heat (up to about 450 F). That makes it a good choice for foods where the taste of olive oil is unnecessary or unwanted, such as a simple sauté or even some baked goods. While all oils should be stored in cool, dark places, refined oils such as this are less sensitive to heat and light.

Peanut oil
Though peanut oil can’t tolerate temperatures over 450 F, it is popular for deep frying. It is praised for bringing a clean flavor to the food. Testing by Cook’s Illustrated magazine found it the best oil for fried chicken. Peanut oil can be pricey, so it’s best kept (in the cupboard) for special deep fry indulgences.

Sesame oil
Sesame oil, which comes in both raw and intensely flavored toasted varieties, is used most often in the dips, sauces and marinades of Asian cuisines. The intense flavor of toasted sesame oil makes it too strong for most salad dressings (unless cut with a neutral oil), and can turn bitter when heated. When used sparingly, it can make a nice finishing oil. Sesame oils have a low smoke point, so shouldn’t be used for frying. It stores well in a cool, dark cabinet.

Sunflower and safflower oils
These refined, neutral-flavored oils go both ways, doing as well in the sauté pan as in a mayonnaise or vinaigrette. However, while safflower oil is stable at temperatures as high as 450 F, sunflower oil must stay below about 390 F. They go rancid easily and should be refrigerated once opened.

Vegetable oil
This classic oil generally is made from refined soybean oil. It has a neutral flavor, tolerates heat around 450 F and stores well at room temperature. Mostly overlooked these days, vegetable oil remains a reliable and inexpensive kitchen workhorse. It can keep for six months to a year after opening.

Walnut, hazelnut and almond oils
These unrefined oils offer rich, assertive flavors that, like toasted sesame oil, go a long way with just a little bit. They are best used raw, such as to dress steamed or roasted vegetables just before serving. Because of their nutty flavors, they also can do well in baked goods. Nut oils are particularly susceptible to rancidity, so are best bought in small amounts and kept refrigerated.

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