I can spend an hour looking at all of the oils in a typical supermarket. There must be a huge amount of money in oil because they devote almost ½ an aisle to cooking oil. The beautiful bottles and gorgeous hue of the oils is what gets me and then I try to absorb all of the different types and relative prices of all of those bottles of liquid gold. I can’t imagine how a typical person can choose a cooking oil if I can’t. The fact is I use 2 primary oils, these are oils that I keep on the counter to use for 90% of my cooking and dressings; 3 secondary oils, which are oils that I always have but they are in a cabinet bought in smaller quantities and are used for a specific dish or reason; and I have 1 oil that I use for deep frying which is extremely rare; lastly a hand full of flavoring oils. Wow, when I think about it, actually write it down, it seems almost incomprehensible. I try to eat as healthfully as possible and these oils are my best guess at what should be healthy.
What am I looking for in an oil? I want an oil that has not been chemically extracted because the chemical most often used is Hexane (a petrochemical and known carcinogen). I want an oil that is made from a crop that does not destroy the environment, organic would be preferable to non-organic. I always prefer non-GMO food of any type so oil is not exempt from that requirement. I want an oil that is high in omega-3 fatty acids. I want oils that have a flavor that enhances the foods they are being served with or in certain circumstances have little or no flavor at all. I want fresh oils because most oils go rancid fairly quickly (within a year or so); for that reason I do not buy large jugs or cans of oil. So this is my list…my favorite oils.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: This is usually the first oil I reach for. The flavor enhances most dishes with its wonderful aroma. The flavor of the oil varies wildly with the variety of olives used; the age of the oil; the ripeness of the olives it was pressed from; the climate and soil the olives were grown in; the exact method of separation of the oil from the other liquids in the pressings and other factors that may be too much for this discussion. The flavor of Extra Virgin Olive Oils varies wildly from floral to grassy; from sweet to pungent or spicy; with a variety of viscosity, color and impurities. All of these things will change the finished foods but I usually choose only one oil at a time for monetary reasons, but I do switch often so I can experience as many of the varieties as I possibly can.
Unfortunately, the USDA does not recognize the “extra-virgin” designation so we are at the mercy of the label but we will do the best we can. The USDA grades oil as Grade A,B,C, D; but most of the oil on our supermarket shelves are grade A only. The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) is responsible for the designations and the United States is not a member of that organization and has not adopted all of its nomenclature leaving us at the mercy of the people making the labels. There was recently a scandal in which the oils sold under a certain label were diluted with other oils. Look for a statement of origin for the oil like a D.O.P. so you may have a chance of knowing where the oil came from. Stick with “virgin” whether it’s extra-virgin or just plain virgin.Virgin means it was produced without chemicals. Refined means the oil was chemically treated to neutralize taste and acid content. Virgin oil cannot contain refined oil. Do not use pomace olive oil because it was extracted using chemical solvents, mostly hexane which I already said was a carcinogen.
Olive oil is reported to have a great many health benefits, it has a smoke point of about 350°F making it a decent oil to cook with and it tastes great. Cost can be an issue but the proper technique for sautéing is to merely coat the bottom of the pan with oil not pour it on with a heavy hand; 1 or 2 Tablespoons is usually sufficient. When used in dressings Extra Virgin Olive Oil adds a wonderful complexity to a salad. If you make a large quantity of dressing and refrigerate, the oil will probably solidify; just something to keep in mind.
Grape Seed Oil: This is #2 on my list of oils. I love it for its clean flavor and high smoke point of about 420°F making this the best oil for sautéing at high temperatures. Grape seed oil is also great for dressings and flavored oils where you don’t want the flavor of the oil to interfere with any of the flavors you are trying to infuse. There is evidence that grape seed oil can increase HDL and lower LDL cholesterol, which is an added benefit. It is important to look for an oil that is not chemically extracted so you should look for expeller pressed or cold pressed even though the latter does not have as much meaning as it seems. Generally, the grape seeds are a by-product of wine making and they are crushed under tremendous pressure to get the oil out and then run through a centrifuge to separate the oil from any water or other impurities. This is a fairly expensive oil but as with all oils it should be used sparingly.
Coconut Oil: I always keep coconut oil in the cupboard. There are many in the world that tout the health benefits of this easily digested oil even though it is highly saturated. It is used extensively in the cuisine of south Asia which is a cuisine I cook often at home. Coconut oil has a shelf life of 2 years or more because it is highly saturated which makes it resistant to rancidity. It also has a relatively high smoke point of 360° which makes it excellent for sautéing. I love the rich flavor it imparts to curries. As with the other oils, look for Extra Virgin oil which should ensure that it is separated by physical and not chemical means. Good coconut oil is also expensive so buy small quantities and use it sparingly but it will last a long time in storage.
Peanut Oil: Peanut oil is commonly used in Asian dishes as well and lends the excellent flavor of the nut to foods cooked in it. It has an high smoke point and there are some famous restaurants that fry potatoes in it for that reason and the unique flavor it imparts to foods. I keep a small bottle of Peanut oil in the cabinet and I check it before I use it because this oil can go rancid or pick up an off flavor easily. I rarely use this oil when entertaining because the oil does contain an allergen that susceptible people are likely to have a severe reaction to.
Canola Oil: Canola stands for Canadian Oil Low Acid and is made from rape seeds. It has a wonderful characteristic, it sticks to metal making it an excellent lubricant and was always used as an industrial lubricant. It is fairly inexpensive, is low in saturated fat, has a good (well, better than the other vegetable oils) ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (1:2), has a good smoke point and a mild flavor; but I only use this rarely for deep frying and I only use certified organic. I use it for deep frying because I do it so rarely that I don’t mind throwing the inexpensive spent oil away. The problem I have with this otherwise excellent oil is that 80% of the crop is Genetically Modified (which is why I only use organic), a practice I disapprove of. The modification was to make the crop resistant to herbicides which would be better left out of our bodies. Though not impossible it is harder to find expeller pressed Canola oil so I prefer to use it rarely.
The Rest of the Oils: I use a variety of specialty oils like Sesame, Pumpkin Seed, Argon, Pistachio, Walnut, Avocado, and Poppy Seed. I use these when the mood strikes, but I don’t just keep them lying around. They are all fairly expensive and susceptible to spoilage, so I plan the use of them very carefully and try to use them up in a short period of time around special occasions.
There are some oils that I have not mentioned like vegetable oil, corn oil, soy bean oil and shortening. I never use shortening. If I need a solid fat like that I use butter or lard if I can plan that far in advance. Lard can be hard to find and both butter and lard are better for you than shortening. Vegetable oil is not specific enough for me and if I don’t know what is in it I won’t buy it. The term vegetable oil means that the packager put what ever oil they could find for the best price and often that means old. Corn is a very greedy plant and is far too difficult to grow. All of my favorite oils are easier to grow than corn and corn oil has to be highly refined to be good. That is another strike against it. It is just not worth it. Finally, there is soy bean oil; this could be a good oil, but most of the crop is GMO and the oil is almost always extracted with hexane. Again, not worth it.
People need fats in order to be healthy. We can get them from the animals we eat and we can press them out of certain food crops. They are essential for many cooking methods. It is remarkable how little fat is necessary to cook well and we should measure our fats carefully. We have all seen the flamboyant Iron Chef pour oil into a pan with a cavalier hand to sauté something. It is an unnecessary waste of good oil and he would have been given a bad grade if he had done that in Culinary School. My recommendation is to put some thought into the oils you use, spend some good money on good oil and use them sparingly. Demand good food products in your local store. Vote with your wallet. Think of me the next time you pass the cooking oil section of the grocery store and remember: if it is cheap, there is probably a reason it’s cheap!