Where would a chef be without oil? Whether we’re dipping pieces of rustic bread in a dish of smooth extra virgin olive oil or finishing a grilled steak with a drizzle of sesame oil, it’s an ingredient no foodie can be without.
Take a stroll down the oil aisle at the supermarket. The number of options may tempt you to run screaming to a pound of salted butter. Olive oil or extra virgin olive oil? Opt for walnut oil or for once and for all try coconut oil? There are a lot of oils out there. Figuring out which one to use can seem baffling, but there are a few easy tricks to whittle down the options. The following are some of my favorite cooking oils, how to use them and what you need to know about each.
First, some definitions…
Cold-pressed: A technique of extracting oil by simple pressure and without the use of chemicals. When choosing oil, always look for cold-pressed.
Smoke point: The temperature where oil begins to smoke and release a rancid flavor to the food. The higher an oil’s smoke point, the better suited it is to high temperatures.
Finishing oil: A last drizzle of oil before you serve to add flavor, moisture and a touch of visual appeal to your dish
Olive oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
What: A heart-healthy monounsaturated oil extracted from pressing tree-ripened olives
Flavor: Varies depending on the growing region, but in general the darker the color, the more intense the olive flavor
Uses: Regular olive oil is good for cooking and grilling on lower heats (under 350 degrees F), salads, marinades and Mediterranean dishes. Never heat up extra virgin olive oil. It’s delicate flavor works best for dressings, dipping and to drizzle over veggies and finished dishes like steak and pasta.
Need to know: Olive oils are graded by the amount of acidity they contain. Extra virgin and virgin olive oils come from the very first press; virgin is just a hair more acidic. Fino olive oil is a mixture of extra virgin and virgin.
What: From grape seeds, grown primarily in France, Italy, Switzerland and the US.
Flavor: not much flavor at all
Uses: With a high smoke point (up to roughly 420 degrees F), grapeseed is the oil of choice for high heat cooking like stir-frying or sautéing.
Need to know: A huge by-product of winemaking, grapeseed oil is also used widely in cosmetics.
What: Made from rapeseeds, canola is lower in saturated fats than any other oil and contains a powerful amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats too.
Uses: With a smoke point up to 375 degrees F, canola is good for cooking, but also offers a mild base to marinades and dressings.
Need to know: Canola is the most popular oil in Canada. Be beware, heat breaks down the oil’s omega-3 fatty acids.
What: A heart-healthy oil, extracted from sesame seeds
Flavor: The lighter-colored variety is delicate and nutty; the darker toasted Asian type is more intensely sesame.
Uses: With a smoke point to rival grapeseed, sesame can be used for cooking at high temperatures, however, the robust flavor may be far too strong for cooking anything but Asian-style dishes. A beautiful finishing oil, sesame makes salads and dressings pop.
Need to know: In India, people use sesame oil as a mouth rinse to prevent cavities. (It contains lots of calcium!)
Nut oils (walnut, almond, macademia, etc.)
What: Extracted from their respective nuts
Flavor: Delicate toasted nut flavor
Uses: Nut oils break down quickly when heated, so use only as finishing oils.
Need to know: Nut oils are very sensitive to heat and light. Always keep them in the fridge.
One of my new favorite oils is a bit hard to find. Argan oil comes from the kernels of the argan tree in Morocco. Its roasted nutty flavor has made it a favorite of chefs for finishing dishes, dressings and dipping bread.
Tip #1: Store all oil in a cool, dark place. Light and heat break down oils, turning them rancid. Look for olive oil and nut oils in darkly colored glass bottles.
Tip #2: Add a bit of flavor to your oil by infusing them with garlic, chilis, herbs or citrus peels. Just be sure to store them in the refrigerator to preserve them.
Tip #3: Buy oils in small amounts and use it up. Even under the best storage conditions, oil breaks down over time.