We kicked off our new FAQ Series with a post on salt; for our second installment, we’ll discuss cooking oils and fats. One of the most common questions I hear in my classes is “What sort of oil (or fat) should I cook with?” The short answer: it depends.
As per usual, raiding my pantry yielded a surprising number of oils.
The most important things to know about any specific cooking oil or fat, beyond its potential health benefits, are its flavor profile and its smoke point. Certain oils, like sesame and unrefined coconut, will have a pronounced flavor and may not be applicable in all situations. A fat’s smoke point is the temperature at which it starts to break down; this can be a bit vague as it happens over a range of degrees rather than at a precise moment. When the fat starts to break down, it indicates a loss of flavor and nutrients, and possibly an imminent fire.
Taste your olive oil straight…but maybe not out of a martini glass.
Oils are crushed, pressed or centrifuged out of nuts, seeds and fruits. Refined oils may have been subjected to additional filtration, bleaching, heat, chemicals and other treatments; they’re typically usable at higher temperatures than unrefined. They also generally have a neutral flavor and a longer shelf life. With true unrefined, or raw, oils, there is very little or no heat used to produce the oil. This is where the term cold-press comes in; the highest-quality olive oils are made without any heat which might compromise the delicate flavor nuances of the oil.
Please don’t try this at home.
All oils can catch fire when heat is applied, so it’s important to know what temperatures you’ll be cooking at. An oil’s flash point refers to the temperature at which it could conceivably catch fire. Don’t ever leave cooking oils or fats unattended while heating; if for any reason oil does catch fire, turn the heat source off immediately and cover the pan with a metal lid to remove the oxygen source. Don’t ever use water on a grease fire, and don’t try to move the pot, as you could burn yourself or others. Baking soda or flour can also be used to douse the flames, but you’ll need a lot. In other words, prevention is a much better and safer option.
Definitely the most-used oil in my kitchen.
Thanks to the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention recently. It’s certainly versatile, and without question the oil I use most in my kitchen. But like so many other food items, it can be confusing; most of our olive oil comes from other countries, and the FDA doesn’t regulate imported olive oils. As with honey, there have been many, many instances of adulterated olive oils sold in the U.S.; a 2010 study indicated that close to 70% of imported olive oil was incorrectly labeled. Some states, like California, have passed stringent labeling laws, but be aware that it’s pretty easy to slap just about anything on a bottle of oil and not get called out for it.
So trendy that even Crisco got in on it.
Never cook with fancy, expensive olive oils; these oils are best for drizzling over salads or vegetables, or dipping with bread. There is no point in spending $30 a bottle (or more) for an oil that you’re going to subject to high heat; you’re just wasting your money. Always smell your oils; like any fat, oils can turn rancid. Keep them in a cool, dark, dry place, out of direct sunlight, and buy in small amounts. Expensive, delicate oils, like nut oils, are often sold in opaque containers rather than glass so they aren’t subject to as much degradation. Still, many consumers actually prefer rancid olive oil; this is probably attributable to the low-quality olive oil we grew up on – we think it’s supposed to taste like that.
Both pretty and useful!
As with most foods, what matters most is your own palate. Before you spend hundreds on fancy olive oils, buy a few small bottles and taste the oil straight. Even better, go to a store that sells different oils and also offers a tasting bar. Some will taste sharp, or grassy, or bitter, depending on age and harvest and other factors. Don’t be swayed by celebrity chef brand names or pretty labels; price isn’t necessarily your best guide here. Figure out what you like, then buy it.
Thank the sweet Lord we’re allowed to love butter again.
When it comes to butter, quality definitely matters. In America, butter must be at least 80% butterfat to be labeled as butter; in Europe, it’s 82%. We’re starting to see more butterfat quantities on labels here (note Vermont Creamery products in photo above at 86%) and it does provide richer mouthfeel and certainly more flakiness in pastries. I use unsalted butter exclusively in baking and cooking so I can control the final salt content, but for spreading on good bread nothing compares to fresh, cultured, salted butter. Want to make your own? Try this recipe.
This little piggy became lard…
Remember when your grandmother kept the old metal coffee can filled with bacon drippings next to the stove? Like butter, lard, tallow and drippings are back in fashion; we can probably thank Team Paleo for that. It’s real fat, rather than fake fat, and it’s delicious. Use sparingly but with great enjoyment, and just like any animal product, buy from a reputable source. How the animals were raised matters.
Nut oils are delicious, expensive and prone to rancidity; use judiciously.
A simple (and by no means definitive) guide to cooking fats and oils:
Butter: literally nothing compares for flavor, plus exemplary flakiness in baked goods, but it has a low smoke point and burns easily. Use when the flavor will shine: in simple eggs, on top of pancakes or waffles, in pie crusts and pastries. Or make brown butter into an elegant sauce for fish or pasta. Try compound butters with herbs, garlic or other add-ins; it’s easy to make your own or buy from these lovely folks.
Canola oil: useful in baking when a neutral oil is desired; also good for sautéing and frying. This oil is a tricky one: it comes from the rapeseed plant and was developed using traditional plant breeding methods before the advent of GMOs. It was renamed for the sensitive U.S. market; the word canola is a hodgepodge of “Canada” and “oil,” since most of our rapeseed comes from Canada. There exists a misconception that all canola is GMO; although that isn’t true, rapeseed is one of the most common GMO crops, so if you’re avoiding GMOs, watch your labels.
Coconut oil: currently very trendy along with everything else coconut. Solid at cool room temperature so it behaves like shortening or butter in baking and is therefore very popular with vegans. Previously a nutritional villain, and now a hero (see also: butter, eggs, coffee, salt, red wine…)
Ghee: butter that has been clarified to remove the milk solids so that its smoke point is higher. Common in Indian cuisine.
Grapeseed oil: a byproduct of the winemaking industry, it’s neutral in flavor and best for baking, sautéing, and salad dressings when you don’t want a pronounced olive flavor.
Lard: rendered hog fat; it is neutral in flavor (unlike bacon drippings, which are smoky and bacon-y) and produces amazing pie crusts, especially when combined with butter. Obviously not suitable for vegetarians. Moderately high smoke point.
Margarine or other “fake butters”: never. Not even ever. Totally lab-created; typically hydrogenated oils often with mysterious additives. Stay away; there is literally nothing of value in these products. No, they absolutely do not reduce your cholesterol. I don’t care what the package says.
Olive oil: the most versatile and a favorite of Mediterranean diet proponents. Use olive oil for moderately high temperature sautéing, tossing with cooked pasta and drizzling over roasted vegetables. Expensive, flavorful olive oils should be reserved for salad dressings and as an accompaniment to good bread and should never be heated.
Nut oil, such as hazelnut or walnut: expensive, flavorful and great for salad dressings, especially when the same toasted nut is used in the dish. Try this simple beauty from the great Ottolenghi!
Peanut oil: high smoke point and good for frying; popular in Asian cuisine. Pronounced flavor and possible allergen issues. Great for deep-frying.
Sesame: see peanut oil, above, except that it’s way too expensive and strongly flavored for deep-frying. Dark sesame oil will have a stronger flavor.
Safflower oil: related to sunflowers, this is a neutral oil fine for frying and baking.
Sunflower oil: high in Vitamin E plus a high smoke point; neutral flavor. Use for baking and frying.
Vegetable shortening: Crisco introduced vegetable shortening in 1911 as a lard alternative. It’s solid at cool room temperature and therefore behaves similarly to butter or lard in baked goods. It’s also partially hydrogenated and not an ideal choice for health, although now the label claims “zero trans fats.” I’ll confess that it works beautifully in pie crusts and it is a vegan option.
Vegetable oil: most products labeled “vegetable oil” are typically soy, yet another primarily GMO crop. Soybean oil is one of the most common ingredients in heavily processed foods and has virtually no benefits whatsoever. If you’re looking for a neutral baking oil, choose non-GMO canola.
What should we discuss next? Let us know!