An Easier, Tastier Dinner Starts with the Right Oil [Infographic]
When it comes to oil, most of us reach for canola or olive, which have earned their place as kitchen standbys. Canola oil is a pantry staple because of its neutral flavor and versatility. Olive oil’s health benefits are widely celebrated, and its flavor can be mild and buttery or packed with nutty and floral notes. But if you want to consistently get the proper cook on your food or put the finishing touch on a dish, there are many other nutritious oils that will delight your taste buds.
The most important thing to know when it comes to choosing oil is that there are two main types: cooking and finishing. Since various oils are derived from different sources — like grapeseed, coconut, or sesame seed — they contain different minerals, enzymes, and fats, which make them better suited to different applications. Cooking oils tend to be more neutral and and can withstand heat, whereas finishing oils pack a flavorful punch perfect for drizzling, but are too delicate to be cooked with.
Different oils have different smoke points — the temperature at which it starts to burn and become inedible — which is why it’s important to use the right oil when you’re cooking. Some are hardier than others, and some are so delicate that they’re best enjoyed in a way that lets their flavor shine. Keeping your pantry stocked with a few different kinds of oil will ensure you always have the right ingredients to put together a flavorful and properly cooked dish.
High Heat Cooking Oils
Oil is essential to cooking because it transfers heat without burning food. If you just dropped tofu into a ripping hot pan, it would blacken before it developed a crispy crust or cooked through. With high-heat cooking, the goal is to cook or brown food as fast as possible to develop flavor. Think of the char on a seared steak or the caramelized veggies in a stir-fry. Because many of the compounds in oil that impart flavor burn at the temperatures required to achieve these results, high-heat cooking oils are typically refined and neutral-flavored.
Canola (which comes from rapeseed) is ideal for frying, as are grapeseed and safflower — their neutrality helps preserve the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. The differences between the three are subtle. Grapeseed oil is slightly more aromatic and can handle a little more heat than canola oil. It also makes a great base for salad dressing because its delicate, clean flavor helps the freshness of fruits and vegetables stand out. Safflower oil has an even higher smoke point and is useful for extreme high-heat cooking, like when you’re roasting meat or vegetables at high temperatures for long periods of time.
When highly refined, peanut oil is fairly neutral in flavor (and affordable), which is why it’s commonly used in commercial kitchens. But unrefined peanut oil has a savory nuttiness that adds dimension to dishes if you’re looking for a high-heat oil with more flavor. Try using it in marinades, sauces, and stir-frys.
Low to Medium Heat Cooking Oils
Most every-day cooking — like frying eggs, sautéing kale, or caramelizing onions — is done at low to medium temperatures. Olive oil is a great choice for these methods — it has a pleasant but mild flavor and won't smoke when heated in this range. But before you reach for that bottle of EVOO, consider these alternatives that could add even more to your dish.
Avocado oil is loaded with healthy oleic acid (the same good stuff found in olive oil) and has a subtle avocado flavor that makes it useful for cooking and finishing dishes. Try using it to confit garlic (and wind up with delicious garlic infused oil in the process) or drizzle it over fruit. Most avocado oils have a high smoke point and can be used for high-heat cooking, but if you want the flavor to stand out, use low to medium heat and a more delicate option, like La Tourangelle’s Avocado Oil.
If you want to add a punch of flavor, coconut oil is a great substitute. It’s a superfood with a slew of health benefits, like increasing good cholesterol, fueling your brain with ketones and fast metabolizing energy, and helping to burn fat. Its rich, creamy flavor means it should be used in dishes where it can complement whatever you’re cooking. It works especially well in Thai, Indonesian, and Central American cuisines. Try it out in curries, refried beans, or substitute it in your favorite baked goods.
Finishing oils work well for salad dressings and sauces, or to add a pop of flavor and rich mouthfeel to dishes. Think of these as a garnish or condiment. Good quality olive oil is one option here, with flavors ranging from green and grassy to buttery and fruity.
It’s also worth keeping some more flavorful oils on hand for the times you want to taste the oil in a dressing or sauce. When you want the oil to really shine, drizzle it over your pasta, pizza, soup, seared fish, heirloom tomatoes, or crudités. Nut oils — like pistachio or walnut — can really enhance the nutty, savory notes of a dish, each imparting its own unique taste, while sesame oil (especially unrefined) adds a deep umami flavor. A drizzle of toasted pumpkin seed oil will add a toasty, nutty flavor that works well in salads. These oils, unlike cooking oils, are delicate and should be stored in a cool, dark place to preserve their taste.
Whether you’re frying, searing, sautéing, or want to add some flavor as a finishing touch, choosing the right oil for the job is the first (and sometimes last) step to getting a tasty, hassle-free dinner on the table.