Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Essential (Kitchen) Oils

Don't let the title fool you. We're not talking about aromatherapy. We're talking cooking oils.

While the sunlight, shining through rows of multicolored oil bottles, may look pretty in your kitchen, the truth is there are only a few different cooking oils you need to get the most out of your cooking.

That and you shouldn't keep your oils in the sun. They'll go rancid really fast that way. You should store your cooking oils in a cool, dry, dark, place like your kitchen cupboard, or even in the refrigerator.

Speaking of refrigerators, olive oil will solidify at low temperatures. That can be good and bad. It's good in that you can then use tasty solidified olive oil on your toast as a healthy replacement for butter. It's bad because your dressings will have to sit on the counter for quite awhile before they become liquid, again.

I think of cooking oils as falling into two categories: oils for cooking and oils for finishing. Heating oil degrades its flavor, so I don't tend to us more flavorful, and expensive, oils for frying. On the other hand, oils used as a dressing, or added right at the end of cooking, can go a long way to creating a silky mouth feel and great flavor.

In my kitchen, there are four basic oils I keep on hand:

Canola Oil
With a very neutral flavor and high tolerance for heat, Canola oil is my “everyday” cooking oil. It's the modern replacement for vegetable oil or sunflower oil, being low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fats. Let's keep no illusions here, though. In most cases, Canola oil is a genetically modified food (GMO). It's actually rapeseed oil. It got it's name from Canada, the country of it's invention, hence the capital “C.” Some people claim that it's just as healthy as olive oil. Others claim is deadly because the extraction process uses hexane. I think they're both wrong or are at least exaggerating things. While light olive oil would be a more healthy choice, it's more expensive. I've chosen to keep both on hand.

Olive Oil, Light and Virgin

Olive oil has a mild, almost fruity flavor, but brands vary wildly. There's no argument that the omega-3 content is good for you. The trouble is that it doesn't stand up well to very high temperatures, making it unsuitable for deep frying or high temperature stir-frying. It's great for general frying and many other uses, though.

There are several varieties of olive oil, depending on which pressing the oil is coming from. “Virgin” olive oil has good flavor, and low acidity. It is less refined than “light” olive oil, which has less flavor. Olive oil loses much of it's flavor when heated enough for sauteing. That reason, coupled with the extra expense, makes olive oil a secondary choice for me for everyday use. If I'm making a Mediterranean dish I favor it over Canola oil. Or whenever the mood strikes me.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra Virgin olive oil comes from the very first cold pressing of the olives. It has so much more character than light olive oil, it makes me wonder how they came from the same fruit. Strongly flavored, it is peppery and fruity. I use extra virgin olive oil as a finishing oil, drizzling it over hot foods before serving. It's also excellent in most dressings. I rarely saute things with it, though, as much of it's flavor is compromised when heated, not to mention the extra expense.

Sesame Oil
Sesame oil is a lightly flavored oil that has been used in Asian cuisine for thousands of years. It's high in omega-6 fatty acids and keeps well at room temperature. Light sesame oil has a high smoking point, making it suitable for deep frying and other high temperature cooking. It is also, unfortunately, expensive. Dark sesame oil does not hold up to heat as well, however. Because of the expense, I only keep dark sesame oil on hand, using it as a finishing and flavoring oil when I prepare Asian dishes. Its strong flavor means a little will go a long way.

Why not peanut oil?
I've been known to buy peanut oil from time to time. It's great when cooking many Asian dishes, and does well when stir-frying. The problem is that it's generally expensive, and loses most of it's character when heated so, I rarely buy it.

Photo by Pawel Kryj


Joy said...

A lovely post! Oils are SO worth talking about! I buy peanut oil from my local Chinese store. It is no more expensive than other good oils. It smells and tastes of peanut, it has a high smoking point and it is FANTASTIC to cook with! But I do mostly use it for Asian dishes!
At the moment I have a bottle of mustard oil! Great for dishes from Eastern India. It is amazing! Cheers!

John Newman said...

I'm glad you've been able to find inexpensive peanut oil! I wish I could say the same in my neck of the woods. ;-)

Joy said...

I guess it makes sense for us to use oils from not so far away.... But they are a treat. I don't know if it is our closeness to Asia or our large Asian population, but I am grateful!