A variety of good cooking oils are must-have ingredients in any kitchen. Heated for sautéing, drizzled over finished dishes, or used as the base for a fruity salad dressing, high-quality oils can take many a dish from ho-hum to wow.
And while olive oil gets most of the glory, it's not always the best oil to use. Some dishes require a more neutral flavor; some recipes use cooking temperatures higher than olive oil can stand. It's essential to choose the right oil for the job. Some considerations:
- Smoke point. It's critical in determining the best oil for various culinary applications. Smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke. At this point, the flavor and nutritional value of the oil are compromised. Oils with a high smoke point, such as grapeseed oil or refined sunflower oil, are best for high-heat cooking like searing and frying. Less-sturdy oils with a lower smoke point, such as olive oil and unrefined walnut oil, are best for lower-temperature cooking-light stir-frying, low-temperature baking, and pressure cooking.
- Refined versus unrefined. Unrefined oils occur exactly as they do in the plant: they have a full, rich flavor, and are higher in nutrients. Unrefined olive oil, for example, contains antioxidant polyphenols that are removed during the refining process. But unrefined oils have a much lower smoke point than refined oils, so if you're using an oil for high-heat cooking, choose a naturally refined version.
- Extraction method. Oils are extracted from the plant or seed using one of several methods. Conventional oils may be extracted using chemical solvents (such as hexane) or high heat, which damages the oil. Most natural oils are either expeller pressed (a chemical-free, mechanical method of removing the oil from the plant) or cold-pressed, a method that best preserves the nuances of flavor of finishing oils and nut oils.
Essential Oils for Every Kitchen
SMOKE POINT OF OILS
Almond oil: 420
Avocado oil: 520
Canola oil, expeller press: 464
Coconut oil, unrefined: 350
Coconut oil, refined: 450
Corn oil, unrefined: 320
Corn oil, refined: 450
Grapeseed oil: 420
Hazelnut oil: 430
Macadamia oil: 413
Olive oil, extra virgin: 375
Olive oil, virgin: 420
Peanut oil, unrefined: 320
Peanut oil, refined: 450
Sunflower oil, unrefined: 225
Sunflower oil, refined: 450
Walnut oil, unrefined: 320
Ideally, every kitchen should have at least three different oils: one for high-heat cooking, one for basic low- to moderate-temperature cooking, and one flavorful variety such as peanut oil or sesame oil, for international dishes and dressings. Supplement these basics with a nut oil for flavorful dressings, a good baking oil, and a finishing oil-such as pumpkin seed oil, avocado oil, citrus olive oil, or black truffle oil-to drizzle on dishes just before serving. Here are our five top favorite types of oils:
1. Olive. With its moderate smoke point, olive oil is one of the best all-purpose oils. Certain cooking shows play up extra-virgin olive oil, but it's not always the best oil to use. For frying, roasting, and other high-temperature cooking techniques, choose an oil that has a higher smoke point. Extra-virgin oils are best for salads, dressing, and dipping breads. A high-quality extra-virgin selection with a rich green color and buttery aroma can also be a lovely finishing oil. Or try a novelty finishing oil, like olive oil infused with black truffles-especially nice over potato-leek soup or seafood risotto.
Essentials: Napa Valley Naturals Organic Reserve Cuvée Olive Oil; Bionaturae Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil; Pearson Ranch Citrus Olive Oil; La Tienda Black Truffle Infused Olive Oil; and Napa Valley Naturals Sweet and Fruity Olive Oil.
2. Sesame oil. Stir-fries come alive with the nutty Asian flavor of sesame oil. Refined sesame oil is best for higher-temperature stir-fries and baking vegetables. Or choose the unrefined version for lower-temperature sautéing or for Asian-inspired salad dressings. Start with a small amount, since a little goes a long way.
Essentials: Napa Valley Naturals Organic Sesame Oil; Spectrum Organic Refined Sesame Oil; Rapunzel Organic Sesame Oil; and Napa Valley Naturals Organic Toasted Sesame Oil.
3. Coconut oil. With its high smoke point and long shelf life, coconut oil is a wonderful all-purpose kitchen oil, especially for baking. Unrefined coconut oils have a rich, buttery flavor that can replace butter in many dishes, and can be used to add Thai flavor to a medium-temperature stir-fry. Refined coconut oils have a higher smoke point, so they're best for high-heat cooking like roasting or frying.
Essentials: Health Support Raw Organic Coconut Oil; Nutiva Organic Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil; and Spectrum Refined Organic Coconut Oil.
4. Walnut oil. This high-heat cooking oil has a bold, nutty flavor; like walnuts, it also has a high content of healthy omega-3 fats. Though it has a high smoke point, cooking diminishes the rich flavor, so it's best used at low-temperature cooking or as a finishing oil. Toss it with cooked farfalle pasta, stir it into softened butter for a fragrant spread, combine it with grapeseed or olive oil for a distinctive salad dressing, or use it as a finishing oil over cream soups or grains.
Essentials: Flora Organic Walnut Oil and La Tourangelle Roasted Walnut Oil.
5. Grapeseed. This light, clean-tasting oil is a favorite for higher heat cooking. Its neutral flavor and high smoke point make it ideal for a variety of cooking needs. It's also great for mixing with strong oils to tame their flavor.
Essentials: Napa Valley Naturals Grapeseed Oil and Bourges Refined Grapeseed Oil.