Healthy Cooking Oils

Cooking oils play a key role in moistening, binding, flavoring, and lending texture to our food.  Ranging in taste and color, cooking oils come from a variety of sources including nuts, seeds, grains, and fruit.  Various methods are used to extract oils from their sources including mechanical pressing, crushing, and more extreme measures involving heat.

A term often used when discussing oils for cooking is “smoke-point,” which refers to the temperature at which oil begins to break down and produce smoke.  The various properties of oils including their color, flavor, and smoke point help determine how best to use them for cooking.

The first cold pressing of olives, nuts and seeds are called Virgin oils.  Virgin oils are the least refined option available, and for that reason, are typically more flavorful and more expensive.  “Extra Virgin” oils are cold-pressed, unprocessed, unrefined, and lowest in acidity. For these reasons, Virgin and Extra Virgin oils are best used in ways that allow their pure flavor to really shine.  Use them to finish a dish, for dipping bread, or for dressing pasta.

My most-used cooking oils are extra virgin olive oil, extra virgin coconut oil, and grapeseed oil.  This time of year, I also use corn oil (for tamales!).

Olive oils vary widely in taste and color. Ranging from grassy to sweet, olive oils take on different characteristics based on the type of olive, the climate where they are grown, and what other crops are grown in close proximity to the olive trees. Where I live in California, you can do olive oil tastings much like you would taste wine.  The range of tastes is incredible.  Olive oil is great for sautéing and roasting vegetables, but don’t use it to deep fry things or stir-fry in a wok, as the smoke point is pretty low (about 375°).

Coconut oil has many uses.  I am personally a big fan of coconut oil.  Since it is a saturated fat, it is solid at room temperature, but it becomes liquid when heated. This quality gives coconut oil a wide range of uses.  For more information about coconut oil and how it works as a substitute for butter in vegan baking, see my recent blog post.

Grapeseed oil is my go-to all-purpose cooking oil.  Neutral in flavor, delicate, and high in antioxidants, it is pressed from grapeseeds left over from the wine making process.

Corn oil is widely available and one of the most used vegetable oils.  It has a strong flavor, though, which limits its uses.  I use it instead of lard to make the dough (masa) for my tamales.  The nice “corn-y” taste enhances the flavor of the masa flour.

There are plenty of other oils out there that are commonly used to cook and flavor different dishes, for instance, Canola oil. Neutral in flavor, Canola oil has a pretty high smoke-point and is used for all-purpose cooking.  Canola oil is made by heating and crushing rapeseeds, the bulk of which are harvested from genetically modified plants.  For these reasons, I don’t typically use it.

Peanut oil is commonly used for deep fat frying simply due to its high smoke-point (437°) and stability, meaning it will not break down at high temperatures.  It is relatively tasteless and widely available.

Vegetable oil is a blend of various oils, is widely available and very economical.  It is highly refined, meaning it has been exposed to heat and other means of processing, rendering it thin and flavorless.  Vegetable oil is best used for frying, given its high smoke-point.

There are a variety of specialty oils made with nuts and seeds such as avocado, walnut, sesame, pumpkin and almond.  They tend to be distinct in flavor and more expensive than everyday oils.  Like Extra Virgin and Virgin oils, they have nutritive value and are great for dipping and adding flavor to dishes in small doses.

Remember, cooking oils do not last forever.  “Rancid” is the word used to describe fat that has gone bad.  Rancid oils taste and smell inferior to their fresh counterparts.  If oil has been sitting in your pantry for a while, be sure to smell and taste it before adding it to a recipe.  Stored in a cool, dark place, oils should last for up to one year.

Kristen Desmond

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  1. Me too. Coconut oil and Olive are the two I usually use. I might try grapeseed though after reading this.

  2. I LOVE coconut oil. Use it all the time!

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