Hello foodies! Let’s talk about cooking oils. One of the main benefits to cooking for yourself is that you have complete control over what goes into what you eat. But the flipside of that is now you are responsible for being conscious what you’re putting into your meals! One key ingredient that is often overlooked in the nutrition equation of your food is the oil (or, for those in the know, cookin’ flux) that you use to roast, sauté, stir-fry, or dress your food.
It’s important to consider not only the types of oils you use, but also how much oil you are using when you cook. A little bit goes a long way, both in terms of calories and in terms of the actual purpose of being able to cook without the food sticking to your pan. That being said, the type of oil you are using is important as well, as some are more useful than others when it comes to a certain task, and making the right choice can make a positive difference in your health.
All oils are not created equal!
“Virgin” oils, for example (“virgin” means not processed any further from being pressed from the source) contain natural enzymes that bring a fruity, bittersweet flavor, but turn rancid/acidic when used in frying or sautéing.
The temperature at which an oil begins to chemically decompose in this manner is referred to as the “smoke point”. Virgin oils tend to have low smoke points. Refined oils, on the other hand, are less flavorful but have higher smoke points, which allows for high temperature cooking and more neutral flavors.
Here’s a rundown of the different types of oils I use on a regular basis. I’m only keeping the most common, more practical ones in the list and leaving out, of course, those fancy and hella-expensive flavored ones that they sell in the cooking supply stores like olive oil “infused with Peruvian lavender chipotle orange zest”. I made that one up, but it probably exists.
Sauté and Stir-Fry Oils
“Pure” Olive Oil
Sometimes also referred to as “light” olive oil, this type is made by chemically treating the virgin olive oil after it is pressed in order to remove the natural enzymes and more pungent flavors of the extra virgin oil. This processing makes the oil more suited for high temperature cooking (smoke point 470ºF).
Use this in recipes where you need to sauté something, but want an olive-flavored undertone. This oil also serves as a good base when you want to make your own infused fancy oils.
Pressed from the seeds of the grapes that never made it to the Smucker’s factory (yeah, shots fired in the healthy jelly war, you call this a sandwich?), grapeseed oil has a high smoke point (420ºF), making it good all-purpose oil for high temperature cooking, especially for stir fry. You can also use vegetable or canola oil for stir-fry, but I prefer grapeseed due to its more neutral flavor and high vitamin E content.
These oils are infused with flavor, but chemically do not hold up well under heat, so add these at the end of cooking to give your dish a flavorful boost.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oils, as defined by the International Olive Oil council, are oils that are produced solely by mechanical means under thermal conditions that do not change the chemical compositions of the oils themselves. That’s some science lingo for, “Step on some olives, extract the oil, and then go home”.
These oils have a lower smoke point (325ºF) and do not hold up well in sautéing or frying (see below), but are perfect for salad dressings, drizzled over soup, or used as a dipping sauce for bread. Olive oil is mostly comprised of oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated, omega-9 fatty acid. These acids have been linked to cholesterol and blood pressure reduction, as well as cancer prevention.
Toasted Sesame Oil
Add this at the end of stir fry cooking to bring out that classic “takeout” flavor, while also getting your daily dose of vitamin E. Use sparingly, however, because a little bit goes a long way!
High in vitamins K and E, coconut oil is a great butter substitute, and is found in many vegan baking recipes. This oil is mostly composed of Lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid that is more readily broken up by the body and increases metabolism. It’s definitely not as exotic as it sounds; you can find this in the supermarket right next to the dairy butters.
These are typically olive oils that have been infused with crushed up spices and vegetables, and are a great way to dress up food. Simple infusions aren’t too expensive at the supermarket, but you can also make your own blends at home.
- INTERNATIONAL OLIVE COUNCIL (IOC) and CALIFORNIA TRADE STANDARDS for OLIVE OIL (n.d.): n. pag. Cesonoma.ucanr.edu. International Olive Council. Web. 21 June 2015. <http://cesonoma.ucanr.edu/files/27262.pdf>.
- Kasai, M., Negishi, S., Uto, H., Okazaki, M., Igarashi, O., & Kondo, K. (2006). We-P14:380 Dietary medium-and long-chain triacylglycerols (MLCT) suppress accumulation of body fat. Atherosclerosis Supplements, 7(3), 430.