Way back when, the oil shelf at your neighborhood market contained three things: vegetable oil, corn oil, and the slightly more exotic olive oil. My how times have changed.
Now, in addition to a distracting number of different types, styles, and origins for those three basics, there is a bewildering parade of oils derived from a seemingly endless procession of seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. From pecan to pumpkin, from avocado to coconut to grapeseed to pistachio to sesame, the lineup of unfamiliar cans, bottles, and jars can be overwhelming to all but the most seasoned chefs.
So let's try to clear up a little of the clutter, and figure out exactly what to do with a few of these newfound treasures.
First, you need to understand the difference between oils used for cooking, with or without heat, and those used for flavoring. Milder oils, especially those with high smoke points, are designed for cooking-frying, stir-fries, salad dressings, and so on. More intense oils, especially toasted ones, are employed in small doses for adding flavor to dishes.
So instead of your ordinary olive oil or generic vegetable oil, you might use safflower oil or avocado oil to brown ingredients for a stew or chili; and you might add a few drops of pistachio oil to a dish of steamed green beans to give them a perfumed nuttiness.
Milder cooking oils
- Safflower oil. Refined safflower oil is neutral-tasting and ideal for frying and sautéing when you want the flavors of the ingredients to predominate. It can also be used to lighten a salad dressing without overpowering the other components.
- Avocado oil. High in antioxidants and vitamin E, this oil has a high smoke point, which makes it excellent for frying. It's also delicious on vegetables and salads.
- Grapeseed oil. This light, neutral oil is usually obtained as a by-product of winemaking. Probably the most invisible-tasting oil of them all, it's perfect for making homemade mayonnaise and herb-infused dressings, and its high smoke point also makes it a good option for clean frying.
More intense cooking oils
- Walnut oil. My personal all-around favorite, this one leans to the lighter side of the category, and adds a subtle hint of nuttiness to a sweet dressing or a wild rice pilaf. As with all oils in this category, keep it refrigerated after opening.
- Sesame oil. Indispensable for many Asian dishes, this fragrant oil comes in two very different versions. The light one, expeller-pressed from raw seeds, can be used for stir-fries and sautéing; the dark one, which is derived from toasted seeds, requires a much more restrained hand and should be used in small amounts for flavor.
- Hazelnut oil. Among the most intense of the nut oils, this classic French offering lends itself to an assertive vinaigrette and pairs well with eggs in a simple omelet. Remember, a little goes a long way!
Check the Label
Always look for "cold-pressed" or "expeller-pressed" on labels. These methods better preserve the flavor and nutrition of the original source, and they are free of the chemicals used in commercial refining processes.