Cooking is one of the most important skills we will ever learn in our lives. It is something that most of us will do daily, and the food we cook directly determines our overall health. However, cooking is not as straightforward as simply throwing some ingredients together and letting the magic happen organically. You need the right tools for the job, and one of the most important is knowing what cooking oil is best
Oil is criminally overlooked in the cooking process by many novice chefs. As it’s the initial ingredient for most dishes, this oversight needs to be rectified. There are a wide variety of oils with different degrees of quality and different ranges of use. Here, we look at different cooking techniques, and what oils are best suited for these jobs.
An introduction to different oils:
- Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO): The “extra-virgin” tagline slapped before many olive oils is far more than a marketing gimmick. It refers to the process used to extract the oil from the olives, and means it has endured only minimal processing. In extra-virgin’s case, this means a method of cold-pressing which retains more antioxidants and monounsaturated fats, leading to polyphenol rich olive oil.
- Olive oil: The most renowned of all oils, this is what you’ll find in most kitchens. However, what’s called “olive oil” is usually a mix of EVOOs and refined olive oils. As a result, it lacks some of the optimal sensory and health features of its more elevated cousin, which explains why it’s mostly used in cooking and not raw.
- Sesame oil: With a strong, nutty flavor, sesame oil is used equally as much for cooking and seasoning, primarily in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisine.
- Peanut oil: Its high smoke point and nutty flavor make peanut oil ideal for use in Southeast Asian dishes and foods amenable to peanut flavors.
- Vegetable, canola, and corn oils: These are your default, stock standard oils that will be found in most kitchens. With little to no flavor, a very high smoke point, and cheaper prices than most on this list, these oils retain the original flavor of food and are ideal for frying.
If deep frying or air frying—which adheres to a similar principle, albeit with less oil—you’re going to want an oil that has a high smoke point and neutral flavor. The most suitable oils for the job are the vegetable, canola, and corn. The high smoke point means it takes higher temperatures and more time to burn food, giving you more room to reach that perfectly even golden-brown color. Also, it’s no secret that deep frying uses a lot of oil, so it’s only natural to opt for more cost-effective options.
When we say flavored oils, we’re not talking sesame or peanut, but oils that have been infused with different flavors. Different oils will be more suitable for certain flavors. Chili and cumin, for example, will work best with something neutral like canola or vegetable.
Rosemary, basil, or garlic, on the other hand, will pair well with olive oil which is more full-bodied and flavorful. These oils can be delicious condiments with many meals.
When referring to Asian food, we mostly mean Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Southeast Asian dishes as these share some similar cooking techniques. In this region, olive oil loses its priority, with soy, vegetable, and peanut oils taking precedence. Peanut oil is especially common as its nutty flavor pairs well with stir fries and coconut curries.
Italian and Mediterranean foods not only opt for olive oils, but the cuisine is largely shaped around it. Olive oil is used for everything, from the base of a pasta sauce or the topping of pizzas, to the indiscriminate drenching of salads and vegetables. However, not all olive oils are created equal—when cooking, regular olive oil works best, though the full-bodied flavor of extra-virgin is preferred for dressings.
While diets high in fat are widely thought to contribute to poor health and weight gain, Italian and Mediterranean diets counter this narrative. The main source of fat in these diets—olive oil—is rich in antioxidants which can help to prevent cell damage, certain types of cancers, and cardiovascular diseases. In fact, such diets appear to decrease a person’s body mass index, improve blood pressure, and prolong life expectancy.
When it comes to outdoor cooking, the temperamental conditions mean that a more forgiving cooking oil will be ideal. Due to the high temperatures of a barbecue, olive oil will leave your food more susceptible to burning. Neutral oils with a low smoke point, like vegetable oil, tends to be a favorite on the barbecue.
Knowing what cooking oil is best is going to depend on the style of cooking you intend to be doing. There is no shortage of options, derived from many foods and of even more uses. The key things to consider are the smoke point of your oil, the strength of the flavor, and of course, cost and availability.