Oils ain’t oils – that was the catch cry of a television ad when I was growing up. It was all about car oils and I have absolutely no idea about car oils and whether they are or they aren’t oils. But it has stuck in my head for years. The only oils I care about are those used in the kitchen. And the ‘oils ain’t oils’ slogan applies here too.
So what are the best oils for cooking?
In the supermarket aisle you can expect at least half of one aisle to be dedicated to oil. There’s regular, extra virgin, cold pressed, light, dark, roasted, smoked – and that’s just for olive oils. Then there’s canola oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, coconut, avocado, macadamia, peanut. The list goes on and on.
How do you know which one to choose? And is there one that can be used for every job in the kitchen?
The simple answer to the first question is to look out for ‘cold pressed’ oils. And the answer to the second question is no. But let me elaborate.
Firstly, the way oil is extracted from the plant goes a long way in determining whether to consider an oil healthy or not. Picture an olive. You can imagine plucking an olive from a tree and pressing it to get oil. It may not be easy and you may not get much but it would be possible. Now pick a canola and squeeze it to get oil.
Wait! What? What’s a canola? Canola oil actually comes from the rapeseed plant. It was produced initially in Canada but the name rapeseed wasn’t appealing so the Canadian government tried to make it more so and named it Can(ada)ola oil. Sounds ok so far. Rapeseeds are tiny and pressing them for oil was not easy and so they developed a process of chemically extracting the oil and then bleaching, deodorising and hydrogenating it. Check it out here. Suffice to say I don’t use canola oil. And I recommend you don’t either.
Many vegetable oils are processed the same way. Vegetable oils sound healthy, right? Wrong! They are generally chemically extracted and often a mix of a number of oils and given the name vegetable. If it’s impossible to cold-press the oil and chemical methods of extraction are used, like in the case of the canola oil, then they are off the list for me.
Cold pressing refers to the process of nuts or seeds being pressed through machinery to extract the oil. The pressing and grinding produces heat through friction, but if the temperature remains below 49 degrees Centigrade then it is considered cold-pressed. Cold pressing requires none of the chemicals that are used in canola oil extraction and still retains all of the natural flavours, colours, nutrients and aromas.
The way oils are used in the kitchen helps me to determine which oil to use. Oils, like any substance, have a smoke point. Or a temperature where they start to smoke i.e. burn. Once an oil is smoking it becomes unstable releasing chemicals. Some oils have lower smoke points and some oils have higher smoke points. The oils with lower smoke points I use in meal preparation, but not cooking. The oils that remain stable at a higher heat i.e. don’t smoke I use to cook with. This is relevant not just in a pan on the stove top, but in the oven as well, so if you are using an oil in a cake make sure you use an oil with a high smoke point. You may not see the smoke when the cake is in the oven, but if the oil is getting to 180C (a standard oven temperature) then you want to make sure it it is suitable.
My go-to oils:
Olive oil – I use a few different varieties: light, extra-virgin, smoked – depending on what flavour I want. I don’t cook in olive oil and I don’t cook with olive oil. I use olive oil for dressings, vinaigrettes, salads, to top dips such as hummus, to dip bread and to swirl on top of soups. It’s a beautiful flavour, just not made to cook with.
Coconut oil – I’m currently reading conflicting research from people I trust about whether this has a high smoke point or a low smoke point. (It has to do with medium chain triglycerides and whether the ones in coconut oil behave like saturated fat or not.) Because there are alternatives, I’m going to save my coconut oil for raw treats and food that is not heated above 100 degrees C. Coconut oil is great in raw treats because it solidifies in cooler temperatures, so enables raw cheesecakes and tarts to hold there shape. Coconut oil is quite a strong flavour, so I use it when I don’t mind having the coconut flavour in the food.
Coconut oil is also great for the skin, so if you get some onto your hands, just rub it in!
Avocado oil and Macadamia oil – these are my two go-to cooking oils. They can tolerate a higher heat. Macadamia oil has less of a flavour than avocado but if you’re allergic to nuts opt for the avocado oil. Avocado oil can give the slightest tinge of green to some foods, but if you’re stir-frying veggies then that’s not a problem.
There is no one oil that will work for everything you want to do in the kitchen. I have a number of bottles of different oils on the go at any one time. That allows me to choose the flavour I want for a dish and match it with the heat that I’m using to ensure it retains all of it’s nutrients.
The two things I look for on the label are cold-pressed and organic.
** I am not a scientist or a nutritionist. The above information is taken from my own research and is my personal reason for using some oils and not others.