Ask enough people what makes a great meal, and you’ll notice two requirements everyone agrees on: fresh, quality ingredients and know-how. But there are a lot of little things that can help a meal go from meh to memorable.
Which fats we cook with might be an overlooked part of our meal preparation, yet it’s one of those small things that can affect our food experience. For example, some cooking oils have distinct flavors that go well with certain ingredients, but might overpower other recipes. Others are ideal for higher-heat cooking, while some are better-used for salad dressings. And if you eat a plant-based or paleo diet, there are some oils you’ll want to use over others.
A walk down the oil aisle at your local market won’t help you decide which cooking oil to use. In fact, there are so many options, you might feel overwhelmed. That’s why I asked the chefs here at Green Chef to help. So let’s learn about cooking oils!
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Be prepared to have your mind blown: vegetable oils are any plant-based oils such as soybean, sunflower, or safflower oil. Most have a high smoke point and neutral flavor, which make them great for baking. They’re also good for sautéing and high-temp roasting. Don’t use vegetable oil for dressing on that salad: they’re bland and mostly flavorless. Instead, use olive oil for salads.
Olive oil is awesome. Our chefs recommend using olive oil for dressing salads, because it has that fruity, earthy flavor it’s known for. It’s also high in heart-healthy antioxidants, polyphenols, and monounsaturated fats; it can help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and raise “good” HDL cholesterol levels. But olive oil has its limitations. If it’s heated beyond its smoke point, olive oil can begin to degrade, losing all that good stuff. That’s why we suggest using olive oil when cooking at medium heat or less for stovetop cooking; for oven cooking we recommend using it at 400°F or less.
A neutral flavored oil that comes from — drumroll — safflower seeds. When refined, this oil has a very high smoke point, which makes it great for searing and deep frying. But compared to canola or vegetable oil, safflower oil is the least processed, which makes it a bit pricier than its counterparts. Green Chef prefers safflower oil for our high-heat cooking (along with avocado oil).
Great for both vegan and paleo cooking. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat — specifically a kind called lauric acid, which some consider a healthier fat source. Unrefined coconut oil has a lower smoke point, so get the refined oil for high-heat cooking. Be mindful of the flavor: Expect anything cooked in coconut oil to come out with a pronounced coconut flavor. It also solidifies when refrigerated.
Avocado oil is our preferred paleo-friendly cooking oil. But it’s great for everyone! It has a subtle grassy flavor, but it’s more neutral-flavored than olive oil. Avocado oil has a high smoke point of up to 520°F, which makes it a good choice for high-heat cooking. It’s also high in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E. If you get some, get the unrefined (less processed) avocado oil.
Golly gee, ghee is just clarified butter (sorry vegans). It originated in India, but is common in South Asian and Arabic cuisines. Ghee is made by simmering whole butter until the milk fat separates, leaving clarified butter behind. That gives it a light nutty taste. And because those fats have been removed, some folks who eat paleo are okay with using ghee as a butter or cooking oil substitute.
Canola oil is made from, what else, the seeds of the canola plant. It’s relatively low in saturated fat (7%) compared to sunflower oil (12%), and olive oil (15%). It has a neutral flavor, a high smoke point, and it’s also relatively inexpensive.
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Besides dietary restrictions, an oil’s smoke point is probably the most important thing to consider when deciding which oil to use for cooking. What’s the smoke point? It’s the temperature the oil must reach before it transitions from “shimmering” to smoking. That’s important because different smoke points are good for different kinds of cooking. Here’s a quick ‘n’ dirty list of cooking oil smoke points:
- Vegetable oil: 400-450ºF
- Safflower oil: 510ºF
- Coconut oil: 350ºF
- Avocado oil: 450-520ºF
- Ghee: 450ºF
- Canola oil: 400ºF
- Soybean oil: 450ºF
Something else to think about are the kinds of flavors an oil infuses into a dish. Some cooking oils are neutral-flavored, which allows the natural flavors of the ingredients to stand out. Other oils impart distinct, noticeable tastes to the dish. Ghee, coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil are some examples of oils that take a larger role in a dish’s flavor profile than your average cooking oil. Be mindful of when to use these in your cooking.
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