Choosing Gourmet Cooking Oils

With all the cooking oils available, it is hard to know what to use and when to use it.  There are so many considerations – is it saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated?  Is it hydrogenated or does it contain trans fatty acids?  And what’s all the noise about smoke point and flash point?  It almost seems like too much bother.

Before you throw in the kitchen towel, let me offer you a few pointers on choosing the right cooking oil.  For those who would like more detailed information, click on the links at the bottom of the page. And most importantly, if you have dietary health concerns, always consult with your doctor before making a change to your diet.

Fats and oils are essential in cooking.  They add tenderness to our baked goods, richness to sauces, not to mention flavor to many of the foods we cook.  Without going into a long dissertation on oils and health, keep a few simple things in mind when selecting cooking oil. 

  • Hydrogenated oils, such as shortening, have been chemically changed into a solid and should be avoided. 

  • Saturated fats come from animals and tropical oils (palm and coconut) and become solid at normal room temperature.  These should also be avoided.

  • Unsaturated fats mainly come from plants and are in a liquid state when at room temperature. 

  • Monounsaturated fats have been proven to help lower the bad cholesterol (LDL).  Olive oil, canola oil, and peanut oil are common cooking oils high in monounsaturated fat.

  • Polyunsaturated fats are considered relatively healthy.  Grapeseed oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil are all high in polyunsaturated fat.   

 How Oils Are Extracted From Their Source

There are two main methods for extracting oils from their source.  Probably the most widely used method is the solvent-extraction method.  The ground ingredient (plants, seeds, nuts, etc.) is soaked in a chemical solvent.  Once the oil is extracted, the solvent is boiled out.  In the second method, which is chemical free, the ingredient is heated to about 160°F, and then pressed to produce what is commonly referred to as cold pressed oil. 

In both methods, once the oil has been extracted, it is referred to as unrefined or crude oil.  In its crude state, the oil is cloudy, with both an intense flavor and aroma.  Unrefined cooking oils are generally sold for commercial or manufacturing use.  The oil we buy off the shelf at the market has been refined.  The color is lighter and the oil is clear, with a delicate aroma and flavor. 

Three Oils No Pantry Should Be Without

Always consider using the healthiest oil that is appropriate for your recipe.  For example, Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) has become the oil of choice for most cooking methods with 2 major exceptions - deep-frying and most sweet baked goods.   EVOO adds a rich, fruity flavor to meats, pastas, vegetables, marinades, and salad dressings.  In addition to its delicious full bodied flavor, extra virgin olive oil is relatively low in saturated fat, and is high in monounsaturated fat.  Although extra virgin olive oil has a relatively high smoke point (about 400 - 410°F) it is best reserved for low to medium heat cooking as the flavor breaks down with high heat.  

Another healthy choice is Grapeseed Oil.  It has a mild, almost bland flavor and unlike extra virgin olive oil, grape seed oil won’t over power delicate flavors.  Grape Seed Oil also has a relatively high smoke point (400 - 425°F), making it perfect for pan searing delicate sea foods such as fresh scallops, shrimp, and oysters.  Grapeseed Oil is low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat.  Grape Seed Oil is perfect for salad dressings, high heat pan-frying or sautéing, and as an everyday oil.

For baking and deep frying, Canola Oil is a good choice.  It is low in saturated fat, about medium in polyunsaturated fat, and high in monounsaturated fat.  It is almost tasteless and has a relatively high smoke point (400 - 435°F).   

What is Smoke Point?

An oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which it will begin to smoke.  The more refined an oil is, the higher its smoke point.  When looking at a general smoke point guide, keep in mind that it is just a GUIDE.  Always keep an eye on oil while heating because the smoke point for any given oil can vary by 10 to even 30 degrees depending upon how refined the oil is.  Remove a pan of smoking oil from the heat source to keep the oil from reaching its flash point. 

Links to Products:  Gourmet Olive Oils  |  Flavored Gourmet Oils   

The information contained in this article is intended as general cooking information only.  It is not intended to supersede or replace instructions from your health care professional. 

View Recipes Using Gourmet Olive Oils and Grape Seed Oils



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