Over the past three years, there has been a movement away from plain olive oil to flavored olive oil and the use of pure seed oils like sesame, walnut and avocado.
Because heat can radically alter the texture and flavoring capabilities of these oils, it is important to understand their smoke points.
The smoke point is the stage at which the heated fat of the oil begins to cast off smoke and an acrid odor. This is the point at which the oil may impart an unappetizing flavor to food. Therefore, it is key that you choose the appropriate oil for the dish you are about to make.
The following guide will provide you with an oleaginous option for most culinary applications.
Flavoring Oils: These oils are not intended to be used for cooking.
Generally this condiment is made from vegetable oil infused with dried chile. It is commonly found in Asian restaurants.
This oil is commonly used as a nutritional supplement. Use in salads. Do not heat. This oil is high in omega 3 fatty acids with a nutty flavor. It spoils easily and should be stored in the refrigerator in a light resistant container.
Typically, this is a truffle extract infusion. Use as a condiment. This delicate oil loses characteristic aroma quickly. Store in the refrigerator.
Cooking Oils: These oils can be used for cooking.
Safflower Oil, Sunflower Oil & Canola Oil
In their unrefined state, these oils exhibit a low smoke point of 225 degrees. Typically they are mild in flavor. Use them for boiling, steaming or stewing.
Virgin Olive Oil, Cold Press Olive Oil, & Infused Olive Oils
Olive oils vary in flavor and can be thick or thin. They have a fairly low smoke point of 300-320 degrees and are broadly intended to be used as elements of a salad dressing, a finishing oil, or to lightly sauté vegetables, pasta etc. Be careful with these oils as they can turn bitter if they are allowed to smoke.
This delicate oil comes in both a dark and light version. With a smoke point of about 350 degrees, the nuttier light version can be used for light sautéing, while the dark version is generally used as a finishing oil. Remember to use this oil relatively quickly, as it will turn rancid if left too long in a cabinet.
Vegetable Oil, Corn Oil, Grape Seed Oil, Peanut Oil, & Tea Oil
These oils are the work horses of the kitchen. With relatively high smoke points of 441-450 degrees they are ideal for frying. Check your recipe before you elect to use corn or peanut oil as they will impart their unique flavor signature. Many French and American chefs prefer grape seed oil as it exhibits a neutral, clean flavor and it is considered lighter than vegetable oil. Tea oil is very popular in Asia and is now available in the US in most larger metropolitan areas.
This nutty oil has a very high smoke point of 500 degrees. It is a nice alternative to traditional oils. Use it to sauté or try it as a finishing oil in dips or to drizzle over tomatoes
Rice Bran Oil
This is a favorite cooking oil in Japan. It is light, high in vitamin E and has a relatively high smoke point making it ideal for vegetable tempuras.
Some thoughts on reusing cooking oils
Some chefs prefer to recycle cooking oil, which is an admirable practice. However, you should be aware that the oil tends to darken and thicken when exposed to high or prolonged heat. Further, small particles tend to accumulate as sediment at the bottom of the storage container or can be suspended in the oil.
To bypass some of these issues, monitor the oil temperature by using a high quality deep-fat thermometer and turn off the heat as soon as you have removed the last batch of food from the oil. Always, let the oil cool before you transfer it to a container.
To reduce sediment accumulation in the oil, always be sure to shake off loose bread crumbs or food particles before storing. Try using a slotted spoon to remove loose particles as soon as they appear.
To ensure that you capture most of the sediment before storing the saved oil, first let the oil cool, then strain it through cheesecloth or coffee filters. Return the oil to its original or a glass container. Never mix used with unused oil.
Oil stored in the refrigerator may cloud. By simply allowing it return to room temperature, it should clear without any harmful effect.
About the Seasoner Kathy FitzHenry is the founder of Juliet Mae Fine Spices, an artisan maker of fine spice blends and seasonings located in San Francisco. Known for her array of sophisticated, handmade products, Kathy has just begun to sell her blends nationally under the name The Occasional Gourmet. You can find her blends at select specialty stores and at all the Northern California Whole Foods Stores. For more information, please contact Kathy at 415-474-1633 or go to www.theoccasionalgourmet.com.