It seems like you can make oil out of pretty much anything these days and just by looks alone, there is not much difference. Let’s take a deeper dive into what should factor into your buying decision, from origin and nutrition to smoke points and best uses. We’ve outlined the most commonly discussed factors in the great oil debate to help you get clear on where you stand when it comes to oils.
Smoke Point and Best Uses: How hot can an oil get before it starts breaking down and sending off smoke? Smoke point impacts what you should use specific oils for, like frying, stir-frying, sauteing, roasting, baking, grilling or finishing.
Processing: Low, medium, or high.
Taste: Does the oil lend flavor to the dish, or is it “neutral,” letting the other flavors shine?
Storage: How to keep your oils at their best.
First, a little background on smoke point and a short high school chemistry lesson. The smoke point is quite literally when fat begins to smoke or burn. This is important to know because this is when fats start to break down, it releases free radicals, unstable atoms that can damage subsequent atoms as they seek a stable state. This free radical, named acrolein, is responsible for the flavor of burnt food (mind = blown).
So what does that mean? For cooking, it means finding an oil stable enough at high temps to give your food that flavor and the crisp you are looking for without inviting unwanted free radicals to the dinner table. And because we can’t forget about proper nutrition, we also want to look at processing.
When you think about processing oils, you might think of nuts and seeds crushed and pressed until the oil runs beautifully into a bottle. That is known as cold-pressed or raw “virgin” oil, and this is certainly still a method. This method leaves a lot of the original minerals and enzymes which are great for health and flavor, but bad for high-temperature cooking. Getting to a refined state that increases smoke point, requires industrial strength. Processing aims to remove any compound which triggers a low smoke point, and oils go through a series of heating, bleaching, and filtering. The result is a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point and long(er) shelf life. However, if you recall, heating oils to high temperatures can cause the release of free radicals, so we will take a look at just how much stress oils are put through before they hit the shelves.
Every oil has it’s preferred method of storage for longer shelf life and stability, but the two key factors are to keep oils in cool, dark places. You may think the cupboard by the oven is an easy-access place for your oils and spices, but it is one of the worst places for both. It is much too hot there, and even a cupboard over the dishwasher should be avoided as the steam might be too much.
|Olive Oil (EVOO & Light)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is one of the most well-known oils for its healthy reputation as part of the Mediterranian diet. As much as we wish this oil could be used for everything, the low smoke point of 375ºF (191ºC) limits EVOO to cooler cooking methods and a finishing ingredient. Think dressings, sauces, and dips. The lighter and less bold “Light” olive oil can withstand temps up to 470ºF (243ºC) allowing you to keep many of the same health benefits, but branch out into sautéing, grilling and roasting.
Vegetable oil is a mystery and a controversy. Vegetable oil gets it’s generic labeling because it is often a mix of oils extracted soy, corn, sunflower, safflower, and rapeseed (canola).
With their versatile uses with a smoke point of 400ºF (204ºC), these oils have been a staple in the kitchen since the 1990s because of the marketing war against saturated fats. However, new studies have redeemed the saturated fat and put the intense processing of vegetable oils under fire.
Coconut oil also has two versions which allow for varied results. Virgin oil is the one you see people eating right out of the jar and has a notable coconut flavor. Bakers love this oil as it is a 1:1 substitute for butter or oil. The smoke point is 350ºF (177ºC), so be mindful of any recipe that calls for anything over. Refined coconut oil can go up to 450ºF (232ºC), and the refinement process also removes most of the coconut flavor.
Avocado oil is getting a lot of good attention lately. Avocado lovers out there know these babies are full of healthy (monounsaturated) fats, and that means the oil is too. Avocado oil also has an impressive smoke point at up to 520ºF (271ºC) and 480ºF (249ºC) unrefined. Which means you can even fry foods with refined avocado oil.
The pretty price tag on sesame oil might be what makes this nutrient-dense oil lose out to EVOO. The smoke point of 350 to 400ºF (177 to 204ºC) allows for a range of cooking methods, but the bold flavor leads us to recommend this oil as a flavor boost or finishing oil.
Refined peanut oil has a smoke point of 450ºF (232ºC), which makes it a favorite for stir-frys. Peanut oil is a favorite for Asian cuisines and food industry batch frying, much to the dismay of allergy sufferers.
Algae oil is a new but notable player in the oil game. It boasts a high smoke point of up to 485ºF (251ºC), a light neutral taste, and 75% less saturated fats than EVOO and avocado oil. It’s a little pricey, but worth a try.
|Ghee & Butter
Okay, so technically not an oil, but worth a mention. Good old fashioned butter is excellent for low temps and baking with a smoke point of 350°F (177°C), but its clarified cousin, ghee, can reach up to 480°F (250°C) making it an option for deep frying.