June/July 2014

Getting to Know: Oils

We use oils for many tasks in the test kitchen. But since no single oil is perfect for every task, we’re offering a handy rundown of basic oils and their uses.

Vegetable Oil

While it can be made from a number of different vegetable sources—from grains to seeds to beans—the vegetable oil in supermarkets is usually made from soybeans. This multipurpose oil has a high smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to break down), so it’s great for shallow frying, sautéing, deep frying, and making mayonnaise and highly seasoned dressings and sauces.

BEST FOR: Sautéing and frying.

Corn Oil

Like other RBD (refined, bleached, deodorized) oils such as vegetable and canola, corn oil is an inexpensive cooking oil with a high smoke point and neutral flavor when cooked. Unlike vegetable and canola oils, however, corn oil has an unpleasant “sour” and “pungent” flavor when used unheated in mayonnaise and dressings, so we don’t recommend adding it to uncooked applications.

BEST FOR: Deep frying.

Canola Oil

First developed in Canada in the 1970s, canola is derived from rapeseed that produces oil low in acid and saturated fat. Its more marketable name, canola (Canada oil, low acid), distinguishes it from industrial rapeseed oil, which is toxic. Our winning all-purpose vegetable oil, Crisco Natural Blend Oil, is actually a blend of canola, sunflower, and soybean oils, which we use for everything but deep frying.

BEST FOR: Sautéing.

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Only oil from the first cold pressing of olives can be called extra-virgin olive oil. Depending on the type of olives it is made from, this rich-tasting oil can be grassy, peppery, or fruity, but its delicate flavors break down when heated. Add it to dishes after cooking, or save it for vinaigrettes. We love the “peppery finish” of Columela Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Store it in a cool, dry place out of sunlight.

BEST FOR: Finishing drizzles and vinaigrettes.

Olive Oil

After extracting EVOO with the first press, producers apply heat or chemicals as they press the olives to extract more oil, yielding olive oils with progressively less olive flavor. (“Light” olive oil refers to its light flavor, rather than to lower levels of fat or calories.) Once olive oil is heated to 300 degrees, we find that there’s little flavor difference between olive oil and vegetable oil.

BEST FOR: Sautéing.

Grapeseed Oil

Pressed from the seeds of grapes and largely a byproduct of wine making, grapeseed oil is chemically extracted, largely because the seeds yield such a small amount of oil. While it has a neutral flavor and a high smoke point, grapeseed oil is high in polyunsaturated fat, which tends to break down quickly during cooking and leads to off-flavors.

BEST FOR: Dressings and mayonnaise.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil, once maligned for being high in saturated fat, has shorter-chain fatty acids that nutritionists suspect actually increase “good” HDL cholesterol. Solid at room temperature, coconut oil is a good nondairy substitute for butter in sautéing and baking. Refined coconut oil is virtually tasteless and odorless; virgin coconut oil has a strong coconut flavor.

BEST FOR: Sautéing and baking.

Sesame Oil

Made from raw or toasted sesame seeds, this oil is a staple in Asian cooking. Plain sesame oil’s high smoke point and neutral flavor make it a great cooking oil, and it can last for months at room temperature. Rich, nutty toasted sesame oil (shown here) is much darker and should be used in uncooked applications and refrigerated once opened.

BEST FOR: Dressings and finishing stir-fries.

Palm Oil

Don’t confuse palm kernel oil, which is very high in saturated fat and used in many processed foods, with palm oil, which is made from the palm fruit and is only moderately high in saturated fat. Palm oil’s reddish tint comes from heart-healthy carotenoids. It’s a common cooking oil in parts of Southeast Asia, Brazil, and Africa.

BEST FOR: Sautéing.

Safflower Oil

The oil that is extracted from the seeds of the Carthamus tinctorius, a thistle-like plant, is odorless, flavorless, and high in oleic acid; the seeds are an ancient crop once valued for making red and yellow dyes. Safflower oil is high in “healthy” polyunsaturated fat.

BEST FOR: Dressings and sauces.

Peanut Oil

Peanut oil has a high smoke point (between 450 and 475 degrees) and good flavor. While it costs about twice as much as vegetable or corn oil, it can withstand long periods at high heat without breaking down. Don’t confuse it with unrefined peanut oil, which has a strong flavor and higher price tag; use the unrefined oil sparingly in quick-cooking stir-fries.

BEST FOR: Deep frying.

Aromatic Nut Oils

Nut oils like walnut oil and hazelnut oil are extracted from pressings of raw or roasted nuts to yield oils that are nutty but delicate in flavor. Since heating breaks down the flavor compounds and causes them to become bitter, these oils are best used in dressings or as a finishing drizzle. The oils tend to go rancid quickly, so store them in the refrigerator.

BEST FOR: Finishing drizzles and vinaigrettes.