If you are anything like me and love to cook, you have had your share of disasters in the kitchen. Some of these disasters, or mini-disasters, probably revolve around using the wrong type of oil or abusing the right type of oil. Then it dawned on you, as it dawned on me, that knowing the difference between cooking oils is actually important. What follows are some meager words of wisdom when it comes to cooking oil.
What Are Cooking Fats and Oils, Anyway?
Both are substances used to shallow and deep fry, bake and sauté. Fats are solid at room temperature, and most of them are derived from animals. The most notorious difference to this is coconut oil, which can be solid at room temperature. Oils are liquid at room temperature and are largely derived from plants. They are also used for salad dressings and vinaigrettes. Let us begin with the most popular of cooking fats, butter.
Butter is a spread and a cooking fat with a rich, sought-after taste. It is made from cream that’s separated out from milk and churned until it becomes solid. The milk that butter is derived from doesn’t just come from dairy cows but from goats, sheep, yaks and buffalo. Butter can be salted or unsalted. Salt helps the butter keep, but many cooks prefer unsalted butter. Butter is excellent for sauces, pan frying, sautéing, baking and as a condiment. Once it’s opened, it has a shelf life of about a month.
Butter is spreadable when it reaches around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The milk solids in butter turn brown at about 250 degrees F, and its smoke point is around 300 degrees F. The smoke point is not only when the fat or oil starts to visibly smoke but to break down. Three hundred degrees is a low temperature when it comes to frying, so for foods that are best fried at higher temperatures it’s better to use clarified butter, or ghee. The smoke point of ghee is 485 degrees F, and it can last for months in the fridge.
This cooking oil is also known as rapeseed oil. It is used for all types of frying, for baking and for salad dressings, but it has a neutral taste that many cooks prefer if they are preparing foods that have strong tastes of their own. The smoke point depends on how the oil is processed. Canola oil with a high oleic content has the highest smoke point at 475 degrees F, while unrefined oil has the lowest smoke point at 225 degrees F. It has a shelf life of about a year.
Coconut oil is known for its sweet, nutty taste and creaminess. The health benefits of coconut oil are a bit controversial. Some people claim that coconut oil has too much saturated fat, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, coconut oil kills dangerous microorganisms in the gut and helps the body absorb nutrients. Again, the smoke point depends on how the cooking oil was processed. Virgin, unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees F, while refined oil has a smoke point of 400 degrees F. It is mostly used in frying and is a staple in many Asian cuisines.
The high saturated fat levels in coconut oil give it a particularly long shelf life. It can stay at room temperature for as long as six months and one a half years in the fridge without going bad.
Corn oil is one of the most popular oils used for both shallow and deep frying. This is because of its high smoke point. Refined corn oil has a smoke point of about 450 degrees F, while unrefined corn oil has a smoke point of 352 degrees F. Unrefined corn oil also tastes strongly of, well, corn. Refined corn oil has a neutral taste, but when it’s cooked at high heat as in a deep fryer it has a strong and frankly unattractive smell. But it’s the go-to oil for deep frying. It has a shelf life of about a year.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This is the first cold pressing of the olive and is prized for its beautiful, fruity flavor and smell. Really good extra virgin olive oil should burn the back of the throat a bit when it is swallowed. With a smoke point of 320 degrees F, EEVO may be a bit too delicate for vigorous frying, but it is just the thing for vinaigrettes, salad dressings, mayonnaise or just to drizzle on crusty bread with a sprinkling of sea salt. Despite its delicacy, EEVO has a shelf life of two years or longer, as does plain old olive oil.
Olive oil is the default oil for many Mediterranean dishes and salad dressings. It has an unmistakable flavor and aroma, which are different depending on where the olives were grown. Connoisseurs claim that Italian olive oil is nutty, while the olive oil of Provençal is more fruity.
Grape Seed Oil
This is a light, fragrant oil that is a by-product of the wine industry. Not surprisingly, some of the best grape seed oils come from France and Italy. It’s best on salads and for gentle frying and is really prized for fondues. The smoke point of grape seed oil is surprisingly high at 420 degrees F, and the shelf life is about two months.
This cooking oil has an unmistakable, nutty aroma and an unforgettable taste, and is used often in Chinese cooking. There are several types of sesame oil, and the more thick and dark, the more aromatic. The smoke point of refined sesame oil ranges between 410 and 450 degrees F. The shelf life of an opened bottle is about six months.
This is a neutral, pale golden oil that’s a blend of several vegetable oils. Vegetable oil has a smoke point of 400 degrees or higher and is excellent for all kinds of frying. It’s also used for baking. It has a shelf-life of about a year.