Cooking Tips · Ingredients

A Myriad of Culinary Oils – Part 2

In last week’s Cooking Tip, I explained about how oils are processed and what the labeling means and does not mean. In this Tip, I want to look at specific oils. They are not listed in order of importance or useability, but in alphabetical order.

I also want to note that this discussion is not going to address any health benefits or concerns about any of these oils. If you do an online search, you will find all sorts of opinions. For example, one source might tell you about all the health benefits of coconut oil and the next one will decry it as being very detrimental to your health. I will leave that concern to you and your doctor. For a general discussion of healthy fats, see this Tip.

Before I get into specific oils, you will notice I use the terms “refined” and “unrefined”. To understand this, please see my prior Tip on how oils are processed. Unrefined oils undergo little or no processing other than pressing the oil out of the fruit/nut/seed. This gives you an oil with more flavor, perhaps more nutrients but a lower smoke point. Refined oils often go though the RBD process – refined, bleached & deodorized. These oils are much more neutral in flavor and aroma, are perhaps lower in nutrients but do have a higher smoke point.

Avocado Oil

This oil is made by pressing the pulp of ripe avocados and then using a centrifuge to separate the oil. It has a mild buttery flavor but it is subtle and should not overwhelm the flavor of your dish. Refined avocado oil has a higher smoke point than many oils, 510-520°F. It can, therefore, be used for sauteing, roasting, searing and grilling as well as drizzling and in salad dressings.

Canola oil

Made from the rapeseed plant, it is similar to vegetable oil in terms of flavor, color, smoke point and recommended usages. It was first developed in Canada in the 1970s, but eventually took on a more marketable name, canola. That comes from Canada oil and low acid. It has a smoke point of 400-450°F making it perfect for sautéing.

Coconut oil

There are two types of coconut oil – unrefined and refined. The former is also known as virgin coconut oil and has robust coconut flavor/aroma with a smoke point of only 350-385°F. The refined variety has a neutral flavor, is odorless and has a higher smoke point of 400°F. It can be used in sautéing and baking.

Corn oil

This is a refined oil that has a neutral flavor and a higher smoke point of 410-450F°. It is often used in commercial kitchens because of its low price point. It is good for high heat applications such as frying. It is not recommended for making dressings or dips as it is said to have an unpleasant flavor when used in unheated dishes.

Grapeseed oil

This oil is slightly less common but does have its supporters. It a byproduct of wine making. It is light green in color with a high smoke point of 390-420F° and a clean taste. It is often used in vinaigrettes as it is less expensive than EVOO and allows the other ingredients to shine through.

Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is the most expensive of the olive oil types. Only oil from the first cold pressing of olives can be called extra-virgin olive oil. It is graded by the amount of oleic acid it contains, sometimes referred to as its acidity. More oleic acid means that more of the oil has broken down into fatty acids as a result of the processing methods. EVOO should have less than 1% oleic acid. It has a robust flavor that is often described as buttery, spicy, fruity and/or grassy depending on the type of olive used to make the oil. It is not good for high heat cooking as its smoke point is only around 350°F. It is best for drizzling and vinaigrettes but can also be used for sauteing. Because of its price, though, many of us opt for a less expensive oil for this purpose.

Virgin olive oil is also made from the first pressing but can have up to 3% oleic acid.

Regular olive oil is also known as pure or light olive oil. It comes from the 2nd pressing and its oleic acid content may be up to 4%. After extracting EVOO with the first press, producers apply heat or chemicals as they press the olives to extract more oil, yielding olive oils with progressively less olive flavor. (“Light” olive oil refers to its light flavor/color, rather than to lower levels of fat or calories.) It is the lowest quality of olive oil and may even be mixed with other vegetable oils. As compared to EVOO, it has a more neutral flavor and higher smoke point of 465-470F°. Because of this along with its lower price, it is suitable for high heat cooking. It can be used for general cooking purposes as well as making vinaigrettes or dips where you do not want the strong flavor you might get from EVOO.

Peanut oil

If unrefined, peanut oil has a strong scent/flavor & smoke point of 350°F. This kind is used in marinades and Asian dishes where the peanut flavor is a positive. If refined, the flavor is more subtle and smoke point increases to 450°F. It is often used for deep fat frying.

Safflower oil

Made from the safflower plant and has a neutral flavor and a very high smoke point of ~510°F. It is used in marinades, sauces, dips as well as frying.

Sesame oil

If of the refined variety, sesame oil has a neutral flavor and a smoke point of 410°F. There is also a toasted variety, which has a nice nutty flavor. This variety should be reserved for uncooked applications such as dressings and for finishing stir-fries.

Sunflower oil

Because if its mild flavor and smoke point of 450°F, this oil is good for searing and sautéing.

Toasted nut oils

These oils are made by pressing raw or roasted nuts such as walnut, pistachio, macadamia and hazelnuts. This produces a delicate oil with a low smoke point and a nutty flavor. They are best used in dressings or as a finishing drizzle. The oils tend to go rancid quickly, so store them in the refrigerator.

Vegetable oil

Oils called “vegetable” are sometimes blends of many different refined oils but in our supermarkets, they usually just contain soybean oil. These vegetable oils have a neutral flavor and a smoke point of 400°F. This makes them good for high heat cooking and frying. They are also inexpensive.

There are other culinary oils but these are the ones you will most commonly find. My pantry contains EVOO, regular olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and sesame oil. How about yours?