With the official start of cooking season upon us, otherwise known as The Holidays, you might have some questions on which cooking oil you should be using for which recipes. Let’s face it… a trip down the cooking oil aisle in the grocery store is enough to make anyone’s head spin! So, I have some essential cooking oil tips that will have you picking out the right cooking oil every time.
1. Healthy vs. unhealthy oils
Most of us have heard the news that vegetable oils are not good for us., but for some this may be new news. Let me break it down for you. The main problem with some oils is that they contain too much of the essential fatty acid omega-6. Our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be 1:1 in our diet (right now it’s more like astronomical:1). Too much omega-6 causes systemic inflammation in the body which leads to chronic illnesses of all kinds.
It’s hard to tell by the label which oils are good and which aren’t, so you really do just have to memorize which oils are best. According to Authority Nutrition, these are the oils you want to stay away from:
- Rice Bran
You also want to stay away from man-made fats such as Crisco (does anyone still even use this?!) and margarine (including margarine blends).
So, what oils can I use?
For me personally, I use olive, avocado, and coconut oils the most. I also use butter and ghee along with traditional animal fats. Your next question might be “OK, but WHICH olive oil? I see some marked as virgin and other’s not. What’s the difference?”
2. Refined oils vs. virgin oils (unrefined)
There are two main differences between refined and unrefined oils. The first is taste, and the second is smoke point. Let’s talk about what exactly refined vs unrefined is.
What is unrefined oil?
When oil is extracted from say a coconut or an olive using basic extraction techniques (like pressing) it tastes like the thing it was extracted from. The coconut oil will smell and taste like coconut and the olive oil with smell and taste like olives. These are called virgin (or sometimes extra virgin) oils. They have been through the least amount of processing and therefore retain the most flavor from their original source. They also have a shorter shelf life.
What is refined oil?
Refined oils go through a much more lengthy process of extraction and handling post extraction in order to decrease impurities and increase shelf life. This process also removes a lot of the taste and provides a more neutral tasting oil. Some refining techniques are better than others. Some common refining techniques include filtering, bleaching (either with natural clays or chemicals), and/or high-temperature treatment. Refined oils have a longer shelf life and a higher smoke point.
3. Smoke point
What the heck is a smoke point?! It’s not as scary as it sounds I promise! The smoke point is basically the amount of heat that a cooking oil can handle before it starts to smoke or burn. The higher the smoke point, the higher temperature you can use on your stove or oven without burning the oil.
Why should I care about smoke point?
When an oil burns, it can transform that oil from something healthy to something not so healthy. It can allow the oil to release free radicals, or even transform some of the components of the oil into carcinogens. Not good. So pay attention to smoke points! Here is a list of some of my favorite cooking oils and their smoke points along with links to some of my favorite brands you can find online. To find out the smoke point of a specific oil just do a Google search.
- Avocado oil (virgin) 375-400°F
- Avocado oil (refined) 520° F
- Beef tallow 400°F
- Butter 350° F
- Butter (clarified) 450°F
- Chicken fat (schmaltz) 375°F
- Coconut oil (virgin) 350° F
- Coconut oil (refined) 400° F
- Duck fat 375°F
- Grapeseed oil 485° F
- Lard 370°F
- Olive oil (extra virgin) 406° F
- Olive oil (extra light) 468° F
4. Choosing the right oil for your recipe
So, what do you do with all this information? How do you put it to practical use? How about a couple cooking scenarios to help you out.
Scenario: dressing a salad
You have a salad that needs a yummy homemade dressing and the recipe calls for olive oil. Should you use virgin or light olive oil? Definitely virgin or extra virgin. Since the salad is cold you don’t need a higher smoke point, and the rich flavor of an extra virgin olive oil with help enhance the taste of the salad dressing. This is also the same oil you would use if you are dipping bread into an oil/vinegar mixture.
Scenario: searing a steak
You have a steak that you want to pan sear, but you also want the yummy taste of butter in your dish. What oil should you use? There are a couple of ways to go about this one. You can either use clarified butter (ghee) which has a high smoke point and retains the taste of butter. Or, you could use a pat of butter and then add another oil with a high smoke point (like extra light olive oil) to raise the smoke point of the butter.
5. Storing your oil
The best way to store your oil, no matter if it is refined or unrefined, is away from light and heat. You may have noticed that a lot of the oils that are liquid at room temperature come in dark green glass bottles. The dark glass helps protect the oil from light which can cause the oil to go rancid sooner. This is especially important for the unrefined oils such as extra virgin olive oil.
Oils and fats that are solid at room temperature can typically be stored in clear glass jars in a dark pantry with no problem. Coconut oil, ghee, lard, tallow, and schmaltz can all be stored in clear glass mason jars in your pantry. As for butter, if you have a large stockpile, you can freeze your extra sticks of butter while keeping a few in your refrigerator. I also like to keep a stick of butter in a butter dish on my counter to use for bread and toast (there’s nothing I dislike more than trying to spread cold butter on my bread).