Monday, June 26, 2006

Guide: Choosing the Right Cooking Oil

Like many people, I grew up with an old-school mother. We fried with vegetable oil, buttered our bread quite liberally, and baked with Crisco. I'm sure by the age of 10, my arteries started to clog.

After graduating college, I decided that my diet needed to consist of something better than beer and buffalo wings, so I started cooking healthier for myself.

Being a sci-geek, I knew from all the research that olive oil was supposedly "the best," in terms of health benefits. It is lower in saturated fat than most of the other oils, and is a staple in the widely-regarded "Mediterranean Diet."

I started cooking with olive oil. I started cooking everything with olive oil. It was going swimmingly, until I decided to bake with it. Let's just say that I ended up throwing out that batch of muffins. . .

I tried a commercial non-fat cooking spray. I now have an entire set of cookware I can't use because PAM stripped the Teflon of it's non-stick capabilities. While I continue to use this stuff for baking, I will never, ever use it for stove top cooking again!

I've become more sophisticated with oils now that, a) I know there are other healthy oils out there, and b) that each oil has a specific purpose- there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

While none of these "rules" are hard and fast, it's a general guide to help decide which oil is right for your needs:

Deep-frying: For deep-frying, a high-heat oil is necessary. The best healthy oils for this are Peanut and Safflower. Both have a non-invasive flavor that won't linger on your food, but it is wise to be careful when serving food with peanut oil, as there is an increasing number of people with food allergies.

Pan frying/sauteeing: Any number of oils can be good for pan frying or sauteeing, depending on what flavors you'd like to achieve. For a stir-fry, I generally like to use canola oil, with a dash of toasted sesame oil for flavor (you get a lot of bang for your buck with this stuff- less is better). Canola oil is another oil that doesn't flavor food prohibitively, so I like to use it as an all-purpose oil. I tend to use pure or virgin olive oil strictly for Italian cooking, or to add flavor to a bland piece of protein, such as Tilapia.

Baking: It's clear that butter, lard, and shortening give the best flavor in baking. However, my waistline is more important to me, so I use canola or safflower oil on the rare occasions that I bake. Peanut oil is another good option, but can be difficult to use if someone has peanut allergies.

I've also done the popular subsitution of applesauce-for-vegetable oil in some recipes. It works for some, but not for others.

Other: Of course, I use extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling or dipping bread. I've also used orange oil for it's cleaning properties, as it is now a popular additive for commercial cleaners. Flaxseed oil has also become a popular supplement among athletes intent on consuming essential fatty acids, like Omega-3's, and fiber (or as a cop-out among steroid users. . .)

It's easy to overlook the importance of oil in cooking. Not only does it help to add flavor and texture to food, but it also helps add essential fat to the diet. There are lots of vegetable-based oils out there that are healthy and add interest to food.

Besides my own personal opinions, there are some guides out there, that discuss the benefits and drawbacks for each type of oil. Many give details on the types of fats they contain and what their best uses are. The only way to figure out what works best for you is to explore and experiment!


Jackie said...

Really neat post! (Confession: I use extra virgin olive oil for everything except baking, even though I know it's totally unnecessary. We don't fry much, though.)

One tip I got from a friend who was very into Asian cooking was to only put sesame oil into your stirfry (or whatever) at the very end so it didn't all burn off... I assume this is true for other low smokepoint oils as well.

Caroline said...

Oooh, interesting tip! I'll have to remember that one. I usually get only a hint of the sesame flavor, but I think it's because I put it in at the beginning.

I don't do a lot of frying, but I do like sauteed veggies a whole lot (mmm, green beans sauteed with garlic and almonds). I think it's all up to your personal tastes- I used to be too cheap to use EVOO at all, but I now know what a difference it makes in salad dressings, etc. I guess I just never knew that I had options!

Anne said...

I don't often do the applesauce-for-oil substitution, but my dad likes to do it in abelskievers, and boy are they good. They come out a little gooey in the middle, which I love.

I'm another one of those people who use EVOO for everything--and I'm also one of those people who have 4 or 5 different kinds of EVOO at a time. It borders on the ridiculous, but they all have their uses... I'm just a sucker for locally produced, artisan olive oils.