First thing’s first: There is no “right” cooking oil. All cooking oils have a purpose and figuring how to match the oil with the preparation and serving method is key to delicious, well-cooked food without breaking the bank.
Consider your finished product. What do you imagine on the plate? A pile of fish & chips? Your CSA basket deconstructed into stir fry? A juicy pork tenderloin straight off the grill? Perhaps something roasted low and slow for a dramatic centerpiece.
Photo courtesy: Cooking Oils
If your cooking temperature is hot and fast, choose an oil with a high smoke point. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which the compounds in the fat begin to deteriorate, turn acrid and possibly carcinogenic. Nothing delicious there. Err on the side of high smoke points for grill, sauté, stir fry and deep fry.
Oils with a high smoke point include canola, soy bean (most often labeled “vegetable oil”), peanut oil, clarified butter (known as ghee in Indian cookery) and the darling of chefs and restaurant kitchens, grapeseed oil.
Consider that when cooking, the oil should not be a flavor component of the final dish. When cooking at high temperatures, grapeseed oil is perfect because it is completely neutral. It is, however, pricy. The next best option is canola, as the flavor addition is minimal and only to the most precise palate. Peanut and soybean are good choices, too; just make sure no one you are serving has an allergy to either.
If your final dish is a slowly braised head of garlic or roasted root vegetables, consider using olive or coconut oil, if you want to incorporate some fine flavor into your dish. Olive oil also makes a delicious baste for a wet rub to smear on a cut of meat before a slow trip though a roasting oven or a smoker. Coconut oil imparts a sweetness and unrefined coconut oil is downright tropical.
Good olive oil however, is expensive. (I’ve been known to smuggle Mason jars through customs, though I don’t recommend that behavior.) While it will work from a technical perspective, why waste your highly prized, small batch, first pressed extra virgin harvested by nuns in Sicily because a smoke point reference website says you can?
Instead, save your finest oils to serve at room temperature, as a garnish. Stir fry your carrots, celery and shrimp in canola or grapeseed oil, and serve with sesame oil drizzled on top. Your Sicilian nuns? Keep that Mason jar for fresh mozzarella, or dressing a finished pasta dish. Salads are extra delicious decorated with delicate nut oils like walnut or hazelnut.
As I said up top, there’s no “right” way to do anything but just because you can ignore your “Check Engine” light, doesn’t mean you should. Consider your preparation and service method and choose oils that bring out the best in your finished dish.
Tell us: Do you use specialty finishing oils? What oils do you like to use and for what occasions? Share them with us below!