Are you cooking with the right oil?
There are a variety of oils you can use in the kitchen, but not all of them are suited to universal applications. In addition to having differing points at which they begin to burn, they also may or may not add a flavour to the dish prepared. Oils also offer different nutritional profiles; some of these are highly desirable, while others are not. The question remains: Are you cooking with the right oil? In this article, we’ll explore different types of oils and their best uses to help guide your selection.
Beyond Nutritional Claims
There’s been a great deal of scientific inquiry into the relative benefits of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which are commonly found in many oils. Because the data derived from these studies is often confused with pseudoscientific claims about the miraculous properties of these oils, we’ll steer clear of this aspect of oils in large part. One rule of thumb can be applied with universal success—if it’s solid at room temperature, which means its compliment of saturated fats is high, use it sparingly. According to the Heart Foundation, the general guideline for healthy levels of saturated fatty acids in oil is 20 per cent. Look for oils rich in mono- or polyunsaturated fats, since oil-soluble nutrients, such as vitamin E, K or D, often come along for the ride.
Depending on your cooking technique, there will be oils more suited to your purpose. If you want to deep fry, pan fry, or use a wok, go with oils that have a high smoke point. This will keep your food delicious and your kitchen from being burnt to a crisp. Two of the most common favourites in this category are cottonseed and peanut oil, not only because they have a relatively high and stable smoke point, but because they impart only a slight, pleasing flavour to the foods in which you cook them.
Extra-virgin olive oil is considered the premium variety, with less than one per cent free fatty acids. This is obtained exclusively from the first pressing of an olive crop, while lower grades of olive oil frequently come from second or third pressings and contain higher concentrations of less desirable fatty acids. What really sets the extra-virgin variety apart, however, is its powerful flavours and utility in uncooked mediums. Salad dressings, bread dips, and even sipping of the highest qualities of oil have become common among foodie circles. It would almost be a crime to use it in the same capacity as its cousins—for frying, baking, or roasting—even though it has the same high smoke point.
Old School Oils
Avocado oil and sesame oil are two of the most well-known types of oil. However, while both are relatively stable, they have deeply distinctive flavour profiles, which can make them undesirable in many cooking applications. Avocado oil is best used as a cold additive. Sesame oil can compliment many Asian or Middle Eastern cuisines, but also does well as a cold additive.
Nut (and Peanut) Oils
It’s here that we see the true character of the non-nut, the peanut. Its oil is incredibly stable, with a high smoke point and a mild, yet distinctive flavour, which makes it an excellent cooking oil for certain ethnic Asian dishes. However, most nut oils are best used as a cold additive—think for salad dressing or for tossing fruit salads. They are deeply flavoured and unstable. Perhaps the one exception to this rule is macadamia nut oil, which adds a delightfully nutty flavour to pan-fried fish and has an impressive smoke point.
Canola, Flax, and Other Seed Oils
Canola is almost universally cultivated and offers a complete absence of flavour in cooked foods. It also possesses a relatively high smoke point. Flax, on the other hand, is better for adding to smoothies or salads. It’s delicate nutrient load means you’ll want to handle it carefully and keep it in a cool, dark place to avoid spoilage. Sunflower oil is high in saturated fats, but also offers a decent nutrient load, so it can be used sparingly. Just don’t plan to fry fish every week with it or your GP will be frowning at your next physical. Rice bran is the best-kept secret of Asia. It offers a high smoke point, relative stability in storage, and little flavour of which to speak, making it ideal for stir fry dishes.
If you come across a variety of oil with which you’re unfamiliar, the best thing you can do is find a venue in which you can taste it. Ask questions about its smoke point, and examine its nutritional compliment before you use it in any capacity. Remember that a saturated fat level of less than 20 per cent is advised, and if it contains volatile nutrients as flax oil does, special storage may be in order. Even when oil is only the cooking medium, you should always consider it an ingredient, with no less importance than any other.