By Sir John Eh
- 1 What This Is
- 2 What Oils Are
- 3 List of Cooking Oils
What This Is
For the beginning or novice chef, the idea of cooking oils can be confusing. This is because of the large variety of oil used for cooking across various styles of cooking and the fact that every person you ask will have a different preference about which kind of oil to use in a given pot or pan for almost any task.
That confusion is what will bring you here, where I will show you as many different types of oil that I can find and all the special properties that make them worth having around. I'll also make an attempt to show the dishes that they would most commonly be used in, but I hope to get some help from the community for pointing out some interesting and unusual uses for the different oils.
What Oils Are
Oils are purified animal or plant fat that are liquid at room temperature. They are the basic lubricants of cooking, and I don't just mean in the "not stuck to the bottom of the pan" meaning of that phrase.
In general, oil is composed of unsaturated ("healthy") and saturated ("heart-attack inducing awesomeness") fats. And those bottles you come across in the grocery store are generally divided into two categories, refined ("all purpose") and unrefined ("flavorful"). After that, the other big thing you're going to need to know is the oil's smoke point, so that you'll be able to know just how suitable that particular oil is for deep frying that particular brand of chocolate bar.
Refined and Unrefined Oils
Refined oils are extracted from clean oilseed / oil cakes by solvent extraction for further refining to produce clear oil, free from rancidity and foreign matter. These oils are used as medium cooking oils (225°F - 350°F), high cooking oils (350°F - 450°F), and deep-frying oils (greater than 450°F). Refined oils have negligible flavor and aroma which can be useful in delicately flavored dishes.
Unrefined oils are typically called salad oils and are used in low temperature applications. Unrefined oil contains a full range of bioactive components that not only have healthful benefits and provide full-bodied flavor, but also make the oil more prone to oxidation. Using unrefined oils at temperatures above 320°F accelerates the oxidation of these oils. Unrefined oils are generally made using cold-press and expeller-press methods. As a result, unrefined oils generally taste and smell like the seed or plant that they were made from. The strong flavors of unrefined oils can dominate whatever dish they are put into. On the whole, unrefined oils do best when cooked at a range of 212°F – 320°F.
Saturated and Unsaturated Fats
Fat that occurs naturally in living matter contains varying proportions of saturated and unsaturated fat.
Foods that contain a high proportion of saturated fat are butter, ghee, lard, coconut oil, cottonseed oil, and palm kernel oil, dairy products, meat, and chocolate. Saturated fatty acids are defined chemically as having no double bonds between the carbon atoms of the fatty acid chain, which means that they are fully saturated with hydrogen atoms. While nutrition labels usually lump them together, there are several kinds of naturally occurring saturated fatty acids, their only difference being the number of carbon atoms - from 1 to 24. Saturated fatty acids appear in different proportions among food groups. Lauric and myristic acids are most commonly found in "tropical" oils (e.g. palm kernel, coconut) and dairy products. The saturated fat in meat, eggs, chocolate and nuts is primarily palmitic and stearic acid. Saturated fats are the ones that have been found, in scientific studies, to have a positive correlation with an increased incidence of heart disease and health problems. They also tend to occur in doughnuts, so take that as you will.
An unsaturated fat is a fat or fatty acid in which there are one or more double bonds in the fatty acid chain. A fat molecule is monounsaturated if it contains one double bond, and polyunsaturated if it contains more than one double bond. Where double bonds are formed, hydrogen atoms are eliminated.T he greater the degree of unsaturation in a fatty acid (i.e. the more double bonds in the fatty acid), the more vulnerable it is to lipid peroxidation (becoming rancid). Antioxidants can protect unsaturated fat from lipid peroxidation. Examples of unsaturated fats are palmitoleic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, and arachidonic acid. Foods containing unsaturated fats include avocado, nuts, and vegetable oils such as soybean, canola, and olive oils. Meat products contain both saturated and unsaturated fats.
What Smoke Point Is
Smoke point is the temperature to which an oil can be heated before it smokes and discolors—indications of decomposition. If you are cooking with oil and it begins to smoke, you have reached its smoke point. At the smoke point, the oil begins to emit unpleasant odors and impart unsavory flavors to the food being cooked.
All the smoke points listed assume that you are using clean, "fresh" oil. If you have already cooked with it (i.e. you are reusing the oil) and/or once you add stuff to the oil (salt, that potato you're deep frying, etc.) the smoke point will drop. As such, take any numbers here as approximate. I really don't want to get blamed for your grease fire.
List of Cooking Oils
Even though it has a smoke point of about 495°F, almond oil (and most other nut oils) should be used in mainly cold dishes, as their flavors are quickly lost as the oil is heated.
This rather unusual light, slightly nutty tasting oil is considered primarily to be a novelty. To add a different twist to salad dressings, try using avocado oil in place of the oil you would normally use. This oil is often made from damaged and cosmetically inferior avocados. It is low in saturated fatty acids and high in polyunsaturates. Has a smoke point of about 520°F.
A light, golden-colored oil, similar to safflower oil. Low in saturated fat. Extracted from the seeds of a plant in the turnip family (the same plant as the vegetable broccoli rabe). Used in salads and cooking, mostly in the Mediterranean region and India. It has a mild flavor and aroma. It is most commonly available in a refined form. Its mild flavor and relatively high smoke point (about 400°F) make refined canola oil a good all-purpose oil. Of all the oils, it has the least amount of saturated fat and is one of the least expensive.
Corn oil has a medium-high smoke point, which makes it an OK choice for most high-temperature frying.
Coconut oil is a heavy, nearly colorless unrefined oil extracted from fresh coconuts. Used primarily in blended oils and shortenings.
Grape seed oil is extracted from grape seeds and has a relatively high smoke point, approximately 320 °F (160 °C), so it can be safely used to cook at high temperatures.
Olive oil has a low smoke point (200°F for unrefined grades, and 400°F for the cheaper refined grades) and so is not well suited for cooking at high temperatures. Blended oils containing olive oil are available and combine to make a higher smoke point.
Peanut oil has a high smoke point, making it suitable for frying. It is frequently used as the oil for stir-frying food.
Pumpkin seed oil has an intense nutty taste and is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids. It is anywhere between a light green and a dark red in color. Pumpkin seed oil serves as a salad dressing when combined with honey or olive oil. Using it as a cooking oil, however, destroys its essential fatty acids (the oil has a high Omega-3/6 fat content).
Safflower oil is the one unrefined oil that can become hot enough to reach the temperature necessary for deep-frying.
Sunflower (High Oleic)
Sunflower oil is an oil derived from sunflower seeds. It can be used in conditions with extremely high cooking temperatures. The oil has a very neutral taste and provides excellent stability without hydrogenation.
Sesame oil is a rich, aromatic oil widely used in cooking across Asia, and to some degree throughout the Middle East. It is usually extracted after toasting the sesame seeds, which gives the oil a more intense and nuttier flavor.
Soybeans contain oil that is inefficient to extract in a natural manner; therefore, unrefined expeller-pressed soy oil is rather expensive. Unrefined soy oil has a strong, distinctive flavor and aroma -- some like it, some don't. It has a dark yellow color with a faint green tint. Unrefined soy oil is more susceptible to oxidation and rancidity than most other oils.