Match Game

Wander through the world of culinary oils to find out what's best for your cuisine.
By Cara Lucas

For thousands of years, people have utilized assorted methods to extract various types of oils, searching for that sweet, fatty substance to enhance the flavor of their food.

Luckily, today we don’t have to work as hard to obtain this ideal culinary ingredient. Grocery stores stock shelves full of diverse oils, beautifully bottled and ready to be incorporated into a favorite dish in no time. However, the hodgepodge of culinary oils must be distinguished, sorted through, and functionally categorized to draw out their best uses.

Getting to know your culinary oils—including their nutritional content, heating properties, and best gastronomic applications—will help you to get the most use out of them while cooking.

 

Where does oil come from?

Are you whipping up some gluten-free brownies? Sautéing some vegetables? How about stir-frying some rice? Each of these tasks is best served by integrating specific oils. Oils come from a variety of sources but can usually be divided between four main groups—seeds, fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Oil is removed from these sources through either a cold extraction or heat-extraction process. Cold-extraction oils are generally deemed high-quality oils because the ideal temperature at extraction (not to exceed 86 degrees Fahrenheit) allows the oils to retain the important vitamins, color, flavors, and aromas of the original substance. The opposite is true for oils derived via heat extraction; the high temperature alters the colors and aromas, while destroying fragile nutrients.

As the volatile aromas of the oils are lost and the rate of oil oxidation increases, the result is lower quality oil—also known as refined oil. Most oils are refined in order to increase shelf life and handle high-heat applications.

 

How does oil affect my health?

Humans need fat in their diet in order to carry out certain bodily functions. Oils provide a healthy option for obtaining that fat, if consumed in moderation. Different oils contain different types of fat:

Saturated Fats: These are mostly animal fats and are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats raise your cholesterol more than any other food. Butter, cream, cheese, ice cream, and egg yolks are included in this list. Plant derivatives—coconut oil and palm oil—also contain saturated fats.

Unsaturated Fats: These fats can be divided between monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats usually come from seeds or nuts and are heart-healthy. Polyunsaturated fats are chemically unstable and are more susceptible to become rancid than saturated or monounsaturated fats, especially when heat is involved. They are recommended for low-temperature cooking because they are easily damaged by heat.

Trans Fats: Man-made by a process called hydrogenation, these chemically altered fats are terrible for your cholesterol and even worse for your heart. To stabilize vegetable oils, the oil is brought to high temperatures and injected with hydrogen, saturating a previously unsaturated fat with hydrogen atoms and resulting in a configuration that is not found in nature.

Different oils and fats have unique uses and perform best when used within a specific temperature range. Some oils are made for cooking at high temperatures while others lose their nutritional benefits when heated and are best suited for drizzling directly over food.

Oils all have what’s called a smoke point, or temperature where the heat begins to affect the oil’s dietary content, thus losing any health benefits it previously contained. When oil reaches its smoke point, it emits a discolored smoke that is irritating to the eyes and throat and is indicative of its nutritional decomposition.

Because overheating oil changes its chemical composition, normally healthy oil can become unhealthy, and even dangerous, if consumed when heated above its smoke point—not to mention flavor is compromised. Studies have found that some polyunsaturated oils like canola, sunflower, and corn oil can degrade into toxic compounds when overheated. Prolonged consumption of these oils can lead to serious health complications like inflammatory joint disease or development of birth defects.

When choosing the best cooking oil for your personal use, first consider the intended application. For instance, think about olive oil. Although olive oil has a relatively high smoke point of around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, you may not want to use it to fry foods. Depending on temperature, you run the risk of compromising the flavor and health benefits of olive oil. Economically, it would be more beneficial to buy an extra light olive oil which has already been refined; that way, it will hold up to the high heat of this particular type of cooking.

 

How can I use oils?

Fats of all sorts absorb scents and flavors. Oils are no different. Simply adding herbs, garlic, peppers, or other aromatic types of food can easily flavor oils. Conversely, store your oils in air-tight containers away from stinky food to prevent off-flavors and slow down the oxidation process that causes oils to go rancid.

The following categories sort some commonly used oils with their best function, fat type, and smoke point. It’s important to note that some oils can be used for more than one type of cooking, but no one oil can be applied to all cooking ventures.

 

Product

Best Used For…

Fat Type

Smoke Point (°F)

Avocado Oil: Light and nutty in flavor, heart-healthy

Salad dressings,

stir-frying, sautéing

Monounsaturated

520 degrees

Butter: Adds flavor to baked goods, low smoke point

Baking, cooking

Saturated

350 degrees

Canola Oil (Rapeseed): Light cooking, all-purpose, heart-healthy

Sauces, desserts, salads

Monounsaturated

450 degrees

Corn Oil: Medium yellow refined oil,

made from germ of corn kernel

Margarine, salad dressing,

mayonnaise

Polyunsaturated

450 degrees

Grapeseed Oil: By-product of winemaking,

extracted from grape seeds

Drizzle on salad, raw vegetables,

dips, sauces, salsas, sautéing, frying

Polyunsaturated

400 degrees

Olive Oil: Most ancient culinary

oil, made from olives

Salad dressing,

cooking, searing,

grilling, sautéing,

baking

Monounsaturated

*Unrefined: 320

Extra Virgin: 400;

Virgin: 420;

Extra Light: 468

Peanut Oil: Bland flavor, doesn’t

absorb or transfer flavors

Frying, sautéing,

cooking, salad oils

Monounsaturated

448 degrees

Sunflower Oil: Made from sunflower

seeds, bland flavor, all-purpose

Cooking, margarine,

salad dressings

Polyunsaturated

450 degrees

Sesame: Comes in two versions, light

(from untoasted sesame seeds) and

dark (stronger flavor, not used for

cooking), high in antioxidants

Cooking, frying

Polyunsaturated

420 degrees

 

Long Live the Olive!

A collaborative study conducted by the UC Davis Olive Oil Chemistry Lab and the Australian Oils Research Lab recently found that California-shelved, imported olive oils labeled as “extra virgin” did not meet international and US standards based on samples’ oxidation levels, adulteration with refined olive oil, and poor quality. This is due to using compromised olives, processing flaws, and/or improper storage.

“Most oils that people use are subjected to heat, solvents, and deodorization through this whole refining process,” says UC Davis’ Olive Center Executive Director Dann Flynn. “There’s a role for that with cooking oil if you want something that’s neutral and not too expensive.”

But virgin olive oil, particularly extra virgin, is one of the very few oils that is made in a natural way. Because of this, you are able to truly get the flavor of the fruit that goes into the oil. However, its natural label also means it’s perishable. “One thing that people need to understand with extra virgin is that it’s not going to last like vinegar or wine or some other things that they have in their pantry,” says Flynn. “It’s a product that you ought to use in the first year of its production, and always be looking out for the next season’s olive oil.”

 

So, how do you find olive oil that isn’t tainted? Here is some advice that Flynn suggests for finding and maintaining a good olive oil:

>> Look for olive oil housed in dark glass. Don’t use a clear or plastic container, which lets light in, degrading and oxidizing the oil faster.

>> Look at the harvest date first; don’t use after a year past this production date. If no harvest date is available, choose an oil with a best buy date that is six months to a year away from when you purchase it.

>> Once you buy the oil, try to use it up within 6 weeks. No matter how fancy the bottle, don’t be tempted to only use it on special occasions. No matter how good the oil was when it was made, it will only go rancid if it sits in your cupboard for the entire year.

 

Looking for some delicious recipes including oil? See below!
Homemade Mayonnaise
Herbed Vinaigrette Recipe
Sautéed Collard Greens & Kale
Italian Bread Dipping Oil