Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" and "Taste of Home." She belongs to Cook's Recipe Testers for "Cook's Illustrated."
How to Choose Cooking Oil
Extra virgin olive oil has sashayed into the limelight. Affectionately nicknamed EVOO, it lavishes flavor on salads and grilled meats and is an essential ingredient in Italian dishes such as bruschetta. Olive oil's flavor has been described as anything from buttery or fruity to peppery or silky and has gourmet followers all over the world.
Did you know that at high temperatures, EVOO transforms into a poisonous pool of free radicals that can ravage and pollute the human body? There are at least three factors to consider when choosing cooking oil: Is it saturated or unsaturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated? What is the smoke point? Jobs such as frying demand oil that can be heated to a high temperature without degradation. Sounds overwhelming, right? Stay with us as we break down each point.
Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats
Fats fall into two categories: saturated and unsaturated.
- Saturated fats are mainly animal-based and solid at room temperature.
- Unsaturated fats can come from both animal and plant sources and are liquid at room temperature.
What are trans fats? Trans fats are produced when liquid oil is made solid through a process called hydrogenation, which increases the shelf life of the fat. Trans and saturated fats raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy HDL cholesterol, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
For a healthy lifestyle, it is best to minimize the intake of saturated and trans fats. In this article, we will only discuss the selection of unsaturated oils for healthy cooking.
Monounsaturated vs. Polyunsaturated Oils
Unsaturated oils are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Although they differ in chemical composition, both can help lower blood cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated oils, such as corn, vegetable and sunflower, reduce both good and bad cholesterol while monounsaturated oils, such as olive and canola oil, reduce only the bad cholesterol without affecting the good cholesterol.
Some unrefined polyunsaturated oils, such as flaxseed oil, contain heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids which decrease the risk of coronary artery disease and lower blood pressure. These oils, sensitive to high temperatures and highly perishable, are best for salads or other uses which don't require heat. They are best stored in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity. But since even healthful oils can transform into poison at high temperatures, it is vital to know the smoke point before choosing an oil.
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What Is Smoke Point? Why Is It Important?
Smoke point is the stage at which heated oils begin to smoke. At smoke point, oils begin to emit unpleasant and often toxic smoke as the molecular structure is broken down. Toxic, bitter compounds are also produced which affect both flavor and nutrition of the food. Smoke point is also dangerously close to flashpoint, which means the oil may quickly catch on fire!
So how can one prevent a healthful oil from becoming a toxic compound and a safety hazard? Oils with a lower smoke point, such as EVOO, are best to sauté foods over low or medium heat. Oils with a higher smoke point, such as peanut oil, are ideal choices for hotter jobs such as frying. The "smoke point" chart and "recommendations" capsule will help you choose the most healthful oil for each job in the kitchen. Note that smoke points are somewhat debatable, depending on information source and methodology.
Smoke Point for Refined Oils
|Oil||Type (Poly or Monounsaturated)||Smoke Point: Fahrenheit||Smoke Point: Celsius|
Extra Virgin Olive
Polmace Olive Oil
Safflower (high oleic)
- Saute: 325–375 °F
- Stir-fry: 420 °F
- Deep-fry: 450 °F
- Grill: 450 °F or higher (brush oil directly onto meat)
- Popcorn: 450 °F
- Baking: Canola and vegetable oils are great for their neutral flavor. Coconut oil may be chosen for health benefits.
- Salads: Canola, safflower or sunflower oils are nice because they don't solidify when refrigerated. Unrefined flaxseed, walnut and extra virgin olive oils are often chosen for nutty/sweet/fruity flavor or for health benefits.
- Asian stir-fry: Almond and sesame oils are delicious for these dishes.
The greatest gastronomic glory of Lucca is its olive oil, the finest in Italy.
— "The Food of Italy" by Waverly Root
Gourmet Olive Oil
Unrefined oils, such as EVOO, each have their own distinctive flavor profile. Whether hailing from Italy, France, Spain or Chile, they are often packaged in bottles as sexy as the oils within. Note some descriptions, not much different from those found on your favorite wine bottles:
"Buttery and smooth with a building bite of pepper in the finish, there are floral notes in its aroma along with herbs and grass. Rich on the tongue, it goes with anything: salads, pasta or even steak."
"It has a pleasing citrus aroma with notes of warm spice, grass and green apple. Its lively olive flavor is very fruity this year, even more than in the past, and finishes with that great green olive bitterness and a bit of a peppery kick."
"The current vintage is colored rich gold, smells softly of wet grass and has flavor that starts buttery, builds to a very mild pepper, then fades slowly, smoothly, leaving your tongue a little tingly."
These oils are best drizzled on leafy salads, steamed veggies, grilled meats and crusty Italian breads so their exquisite flavor can be savored.
Ina Garten's Vinaigrette
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, garlic, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified.
- Place salad greens in a medium bowl and add enough dressing to moisten. Sprinkle with a little extra salt and pepper, if desired, and serve immediately.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.