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Culinary Lesson #13 - Cooking Oils

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Q12:  When it comes to cooking with oils, how big of a deal is it to substitute, say, extra-virgin olive oil for olive oil, or peanut oil for vegetable oil?

A12:  When determining if a certain type of oil is a good choice or substitution, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Most importantly, what type of application are you using it for?  Are you baking?  Sauteing?  Pan frying?  Deep frying?  Each type of oil is going to outperform others at a specific cooking temperature, so it's important to know the temperature range you plan on reaching.  For this reason, it doesn't make sense to saute some vegetables using extra-virgin olive oil when you're all out of olive oil.
  2. Next, ask yourself if you want the oil's flavor/aroma to stand out.  Oils and fats like sesame oil, extra-virgin olive oil, and butter are often used more for their flavors than their heat potential.  Now what happens if you want flavor and a high smoke point?  A common solution is to use olive oil and butter, for example, to get both of these qualities in a dish.
  3. Lastly, are you concerned with and/or interested in the potential health benefits with oils?  Since this post mainly covers the first two points, check out small bites for a detailed blog and downloadable PDF that simplifies the whole topic.

Before going into specifics, here are a few definitions to get familiar with.

Smoke point - The smoke point of an oil or fat is exactly what it sounds like; it's the temperature at which an oil or fat begins to break down and smoke.  Although you should always avoid reaching the smoke point (for safety and health reasons), it is a good number to be aware of so you can properly match the oil or fat with the cooking technique you are executing.  In addition, it should be noted that the more you heat and cool the same oil (typically done for deep frying), the more the smoke point will decrease irreversibly.

Refined - An oil is called refined if it undergoes physical and/or chemical changes to improve its taste, quality, color, clarity, and/or odor.  Due to the removal of impurities, refined oils are generally used for medium to high heat applications.

Unrefined - An oil is called unrefined if it is processed by a cold-pressed or expeller-pressed method (physically processed rather than chemically processed) and is known for having a strong flavor.  Due to their impurities and low smoke points, unrefined oils are best used for lower temperature cooking methods (or non-cooking methods).

Below is a list of some of the most common types of cooking oils laying around the kitchen, in order of their smoke points (low to high).  [Please note: the smoke points listed are just common values.  They can (and will) vary from brand to brand, due to the types of impurities, processes used to refine, salt contents (if applicable), etc.]  
  • Coconut oil (smoke point of 350°F) visually is different than most oils because of its high percentage of saturated fat, giving it a high viscosity.  It is commonly used for baking and to pop popcorn with, due to its flavor.  It has also been a hot topic in the nutrition world over the past few years, getting reviews from both sides of the table.
  • Butter (smoke point of  350°F) is little more than heavy cream that's been physically agitated to the point that the fat molecules are freed and separated from the liquid (buttermilk).  As everyone knows, butter is all about the flavor, which is why it's used in spreads, baking, finishing sauces, and low-heat stove top applications.
  • Vegetable shortening (smoke point of 360°F) is vegetable oil that has been hydrogenated, giving it a semi-solid quality.  Shortening is mainly left to baked goods, due to its ability to blend well with flour, and produce end products with a desirable texture (like pie crusts).  The flavor is more or less neutral.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (smoke point of  375°Fmust come only from virgin production (no chemical treatment can be done to extract the oil), must be kept under 86°F during production (which is known as being 'cold pressed'), and must have no more than 0.8% acidity to truly be called extra-virgin olive oil.  Extra-virgin olive oil is best known for its taste, and is usually used to garnish dishes, dress salads, or serve as a dip for breads.  Since so much goes into making a good extra-virgin olive oil, (unfortunately) cost is your best indicator for a good quality oil.
  • Canola oil (refined smoke point of 400°F and up) is a fairly healthy oil that comes from the seeds of a specific type of flower that was originally bred from rapeseed, which is a yellow flower from the mustard and cabbage family.  Canola is a flavorless but versatile oil that is used in dressings, baking, stir frying, sauteing, and even deep frying.
  • Sesame oil (smoke point of 410°F) is mainly used for its flavor and is common in many Asian cuisines.  It is usually used for stir frying and, because of its cost, in relatively small amounts.
  • Olive oil (smoke point of  440°F) contains both virgin and refined (chemically treated to neutralize the acid content) oil and must have no more than 2% acidity.  Since the taste doesn't compare to extra-virgin varieties, olive oil is commonly used in baking, sauteing, and stir frying.
  • Peanut oil (refined smoke point of 440°F) is made from raw peanuts and is one of the most common oils used for deep frying (especially Asian dishes and deep fried birds) because of its high smoke point and neutral taste.
  • Sunflower oil (semi-refined smoke point of 450°F) is another one of those versatile oils, that is especially nice for high-heat applications.
  • Vegetable oil (refined smoke point of 450°F) can be used to describe any one of the vegetable-based oils listed on this page and is also used as a trademark for an oil containing a variety of individual vegetable oils.  Due to its variability, its cooking qualities vary from brand to brand.
  • Corn oil (refined smoke point of 455°F) comes from the germ of corn (the lighter part near the tip), and is a generally inexpensive option for deep frying foods, such as the popular french fry. 
  • Ghee (smoke point of 480°Fis basically clarified butter and is used a lot in Indian cuisine.  [Side note:  ghee can easily be made at home, by melting butter, skimming off the milk solids, and filtering.  If interested, click here for more details.]  Since the milk solids are what cause butter to burn so quickly, ghee can reach higher temperatures than butter.
  • Soybean oil (smoke point of 495°F) is used mainly to deep fry foods.  With a smoke point near 500°F, soybean oil tends to get many uses before it needs to be discarded.  For this reason, many restaurants that fry foods daily often use soybean oil.

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