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A Lesson on Oils

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A Lesson on Oils

I never thought much about the oils I used in my food when I first started cooking for myself. I think I had just one bottle of vegetable oil in my cupboard. Sometimes, I’m sure, I had butter in the fridge, but that was mostly for my toast or baking. When I delved deeper into my cooking obsession, after I got married, I added olive oil the cupboard. Then came some sesame oil for my stir frying, and next thing you know, I have dozens of oils to choose from on a daily basis.

One question that is presented to me time and again is: Which oil is best for which cooking method?

This question is presented to me all the time, and it’s not an easy one to answer. It is multi-faceted, with various angles to consider. The health factor, the flavor factor, and the smoking point factor. Health and flavor are obvious. Why smoking point? Because when an oil is at its smoking point, it is closer to its flash point – the point where it will burst into flame. Not only is burnt food not appetizing, but when food is burnt, carcinogenic substances are produced. Even though it would take significant amounts of burnt food to be consumed for it to be a significant cancer risk, again, why would you WANT to eat burnt food?

Andrew, over at Eating Rules, came up with a clever and super informative flow chart about the healthy benefits of cooking oils and a basic guide to the cooking uses of these fats and oils. What I hope to show you is more specific about the cooking side.

Below I have listed some oils that are commonly used in everyday cooking. I did not include every possible oil, as the choices are vast. But with a small collection of these oils, your cooking possibilities are endless.

A Lesson on Oils: Olive Oil

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil:
This is the highest quality and most expensive type of olive oil. It must pass an official chemical test by the International Olive Council for it to be classified as “extra-virgin.” Virgin Olive Oil is produced from purely physical means and with no chemicals. Extra-virgin olive oil is the result from the first cold-pressing of the olives. It is darker in color, less acidity and has more olive flavor than virgin olive oil. Any other olive oils are just not worth mentioning as they tend to be refined with chemical additives.
Smoking Point: 400-365ºF (204 and 185ºC) depending on its free fatty acid content.
Good For: Pan-Frying, Stir-Frying, Baking, Roasting, & Dips/Dressings/Marinades.
Price: $$-$$$$$
Recipes using Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: Quinoa Shirazi SaladPasta with Zucchini, Garlic and Olive Oil and Olive-Rosemary Bread. Click here to see more recipes.
A Lesson on Oils: Grape Seed Oil
Grape Seed Oil:
This oil is the result from pressing the seeds from various grapes, a by-product of wine-making. It has a light neutral taste, and high in polyunsaturated fat. Because of it’s high smoking point, it is very safe to use on the grill or for frying.
Smoking point: 485ºF (252ºC)
Good For: Pan-Frying, Stir-Frying, Deep Frying, Baking, Roasting, & Dips/Dressings/Marinades.
Price: $$
Recipes using Grape Seed Oil: Garlic Smashed PotatoesTangy Quinoa Fruit Salad, and Gluten-Free Breakfast Bars. Click here to see more recipes.
A Lesson on Oils: Avocado Oil
Avocado Oil:
This is the edible oil pressed from the avocado fruit, not the seed. It is high in monosaturated fats and Vitamin E. Light in color, with a mild nuttiness, it is much more neutral in flavor than compared to olive oil. It also has a high smoking point, but it is more expensive than grape seed oil.
Smoking Point: 520ºF (271ºC)
Good For: Grilling, Pan-Frying, Stir-Frying, Deep Frying, Baking, Roasting & Dips/Dressings/Marinades.
Price: $$$$
A Lesson on Oils: Sesame Oil
Dark Sesame Oil:
This oil is made from pressing toasted sesame seeds. It is amber in color and very flavorful. Here is where a little goes a long way, so it is typically mixed in with a neutral tasting oil. Because of it’s relatively low smoking point, dark sesame oil is best to use at the end of the cooking process for additional flavor.
Smoking Point: 350 ºF (177ºC)
Good For: Stir-Frying & Dips/Dressings/Marinades.
Price: $$$
A Lesson on Oils: Canola Oil
Canola Oil:
This is the oil produced from rapeseed, or field mustard. It is slightly heated and then crushed to release the oil. Most of the controversy over canola oil is that most of what you see in the supermarket is from the genetically engineered rapeseed. Low in saturated fat, it is a very popular oil for low-calorie cooking.
Smoking Point: 400 ºF (204ºC).
Good For:  Pan-Frying, Stir-Frying, Baking, Roasting & Dips/Dressings/Marinades.
Price: $
Recipes using Canola Oil: Low Fat Oatmeal-Banana MuffinsBeef Cutlets with Cauliflower, and Plum Yogurt Cake. Click here to see more recipes.
Honorable Mentions:
Peanut Oil: Oil produced from peanuts. It’s high smoking point make it great for the grill and the first choice for deep frying.
Flax Seed Oil: Oil produced from the herb, flax. Rich in healthy omega-3s that get destroyed with heat. Best used for dips and salad dressings.
Although most of the recipes that I post here on my blog request a specific oil, now that you are oil-educated, you can easily substitute with the oils of your choice. You’ll notice a difference especially when the oil is uncooked, and used in salads and dips. And pretty soon, you will have nice collection of oils in your cupboard, too!

More resources to “oil” over:
Olive Oil Source
Avocado.com
CBS News
Whole Foods Market

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18 Responses to A Lesson on Oils

  1. Kaydee at #

    Thanks for the lesson :)
    I love experimenting, but always wonder which oil is best… Especially which heat the best!

  2. Excellent post! And great choice of basics to list!

  3. I didn’t know that there is an avocado oil! That was something new to me. It was fun learning about oils!

  4. Being Italian I use tons of extra virgin olive oil, but for frying and Asian food I use rice bran oil, which has a high burning point and no smell or after taste, in fact it is good for baking cakes too and generally rates better than canola and other similar oils. Avocado oil is also made here in New Zealand, nice for salads and dips (not cooking), and sesame oil of course is lovely, but for flavoring only: a few drops are enough. Here they also use flax seed oil as a diet supplement, but it tastes horrible and really needs to be hidden in food :-), and cannot be used in cooking. I used to put it in baby food, but I don’t really use it much now, since we have a varied diet anyway. If i had to choose one oil on my desert island it would be extra virgin olive oil, after all you can use it for everything, even skincare! And you? If you had to choose only one what would it be?

    Ciao
    Alessandra

    PS
    found you via Nami, lovely blog you have!

    • Laura at #

      Thank you, Alessandra! Absolutely, positively if I were to chose one oil it be extra-virgin olive oil – hands down, no competition. I use it everyday. I’ve never heard of rice bran oil. I do know that unrefined avocado oil is not recommended for cooking, so maybe that’s the avocado oil you are talking about?

  5. Jenny at #

    Hi Laura, that was very interesting – and your PICS are stunning!! I shall be looking through your blog – your food looks brilliant.

  6. Really informative post! I’ve used all of these except for Avocado. Nice photos with good lighting. Thanks for this.

    • Laura at #

      I only started using avocado oil this year. It’s very light (& expensive!).

  7. Useful information so beautifully presented! GREG

    • Laura at #

      Thank you, Greg!

  8. Thanks for this informative post! I, too, have collected numerous oils over the years. I use mostly extra virgin olive, canola and sesame oils, but lately have become increasingly confused over contradicting reports about what’s safe to heat and what’s not… particularly olive oil.

    Some reports say heating olive oil (even below smoking point) releases toxins, and that it should be used solely as a garnish. Some say canola is great, others say it’s the worst! What’s a person to do, right?

    Either way I really did enjoy reading through this. Beautifully presented, too!

    • Laura at #

      Thank you! Yes, there is a lot of conflicting information out there. I tend to roast my vegetables in grape seed oil, even if it is at a temperature that is considered safe for EVOO. The vegetables are crisper and don’t have a tendency to burn.

  9. Just had to share a link to your post on our Facebook page, as we offer avocado oil in some of our avocado gift boxes. Can’t wait to get together again after Camp Blogaway!

  10. A beautiful and informative post! I’m a recent fan of avocado oil that I buy at our neighborhood Farmers Market.

  11. The recipe says 150mls of sunflower oil but all I have is vegetable oil, olive oil and peanut oil. I figure vegetable oil has the mildest flavor, would it be ok to use that instead of sunflower oil? Will it effect the outcome or taste of the cake any? I am making a lemon syrup cake, so it will be quite intense with lemon flavor anyway.

    • Laura at #

      Hi Tracy,

      Thank you for your great question! You should be fine substituting equally with vegetable oil. Both are neutral tasting oils and react quite the same.

      One of my favorite sites that helps me with substitutions is The Cook’s Thesaurus. And they had this to say:

      sunflower oil Substitutes: walnut oil (in a salad dressing) OR safflower oil OR canola oil OR grapeseed oil OR corn oil OR soybean oil OR peanut oil OR cooking spray (for greasing pans)

      Best of luck!

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