Since my recent foray into deep-frying, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the many oils we use in the kitchen. At any one time I have at least 4 or 5 different types of oil in the pantry, and use them all in different ways and for different reasons. It’s taken me years to work out what oil works where – and although it’s largely matter of taste, there are a few guidelines that are best adhered to in terms of oil appropriateness. Strangely, considering how widely and frequently we use oils in our cooking (probably every night for most of us), it’s not something often discussed. Modern food books seem to mostly to be in the pocket of the olive oligarchs (as evidenced by the frivolous over-prescribing of extra virgin olive oil for everything from pesto to pad Thai,) or worse still they demand the use of a mythical substance called ‘vegetable oil’.
So it seems to me that a brief guide to the best and brightest of edible oils – at least as I see them – might be timely. I’m not going to delve in into the dull complexities of nutrition in any detail, except to say that vegetable oils are fats – albeit of a slightly gentler kind than animal fat – but if taken in quantity will generously deliver on the promises of that name. Do you really need me to expand upon this? It’s been said by some – far too often, If you ask me – that the secret to a long and happy life is to take everything in moderation. Makes sense, I suppose, but the history of popular culture is littered with contradictory evidence that the secret to a brief and bloody fabulous life is to indulge in everything to catastrophic excess – think Cass Elliot, Elvis Presley etc. I’m not about to tell you which way is better. It’s your trip.
Culinary oils fall into two main categories – the ones we use for actual cooking (frying, deep-frying, bastings etc) and the ones we use ‘raw’ for dressings, dips, sauces and marinades. Some, like peanut oil, can serve both functions; whereas others should never rise above their stations. (For example, dark sesame oil, which would be a very odd, not to mention expensive, choice for deep-frying; although I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Heston Blumenthal gives it a whirl! )
There are a great many more oils available to the keen cook than those listed below; these are just the ones I know best.
Considering the word ‘oil’ is derived from oleum – the Latin for olive oil – it seems appropriate to start here.
A number of different grades of olive oil are available, but as far as I’m concerned extra virgin is the only one worth talking about.
Pomace olive oil – should you have the misfortune to come across it – is a barley food grade abomination extracted with detergents from pre-squeezed olive dregs. It’s nasty stuff and will again never pass my lips. As for light olive oil – what’s the point?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
By definition extra virgin is any oil resulting from the first pressing of the olive mash, which is stirred and re-pressed several times to obtain successive grades of oil. It’s often vibrantly green, almost syrupy, with a strong herbaceous fragrance and slightly acrid tang. If you only know extra virgin olive oil by way of those blockbuster supermarket brands, my description may seem a little OTT, so allow me to explain: although allegedly within the required parameters of acidity, body and colour to be classed as extra virgin olive oil, the vast majority of oils sold under that name in supermarkets are worlds apart from the best of their kind. Its long been rumoured that various parties abroad are telling greasy little porkies, because the apparent annual extra virgin olive oil yield of Europe is impossibly high – there just aren’t enough trees in Europe today to be making the volume of extra virgin oil sold under that title. Accusations of adulteration and tampering are thrown around from time to time, but are quickly silenced by the all-powerful and powerfully litigious International Olive Council. Based in Spain, this uber- bureaucratic cartel is alarmingly influential and highly secretive – rather like an oilier version of Opus Dei.
The fact is, if you’re paying around $10-$12 per litre for so-called extra virgin oil, you will be getting oil that is excellent for frying and maybe the odd salad dressing – but that’s about it. However, as long as you don’t believe a word of the faux-talian marketing spin, its great stuff. Supermarket extra virgin is my preferred oil for everyday use, and I go though around a litre per week. It may not be anything special but it makes a damn fine kitchen workhorse.
True extra virgin oil, by contrast is wasted in the pan. It may be THE oil for drizzling over bruschetta, or insalata Caprese, and for making the finest vinaigrette , mayonnaise and aioli but never for cooking. It’s best thought of as a condiment oil. To be enjoyed at its best, extra virgin oil should be very fresh, preferably no more than 6-9 months old) and have been stored in darkness (UV light destroys the delicate flavour and colour).
The New Zealand olive industry is going from strength to strength, and our oils have won many international accolades. These home-grown EVO’s represent excellent value for money, when compared to their high end counterparts imported from Tuscany and beyond. In fact, the best local olive oils are generally superior to any of the imported equivalents I’ve tasted, and better than many I’ve tasted overseas. This is something to be proud of. Better still, along with our growing reputation for producing world class wines, it annoys the hell out of the Europeans!
There is no great art to choosing a premium olive oil – but always try before you buy. Quality can vary hugely from year to year, and is dependent on freshness and correct storage. In other words, don’t assume that what was breathtaking last year will be quite so incapacitating this time around.
Peanut A.K.A Groundnut oil
A much-maligned oil on account of its pedestrian progenitor, high saturated fat content and potential for purging the world of people with nut allergies with all the swiftness of sarin in the Tokyo tube network. But to hell with that; peanut is the only oil to use for Asian style stir fried cooking. Simply nothing else will do. It has a warm, peanuty aroma and similarly pleasing taste, which blends so beautifully with the salty-sweet flavours of many Chinese creations. There are few finer scents of the kitchen that that of onions sizzling in smoking-hot peanut oil.
Apart these obvious applications, peanut oil also turns up in a few unexpected places – most startlingly in Julia Child’s classic crepe batter recipe from her magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I too was sceptical at first, being far more used to liberal lashing of butter, but now wouldn’t do it any other way. Side by side with olive oil this stuff deserves a permanent place by your stove.
Rather as the name suggests, pressed from oil-rich sunflower seeds. I like this oil for its very clean, slightly sweet taste. Although I rarely cook with it myself, it is a very decent oil for frying, but is even better suited to more subtle applications. I personally find mayonnaise made with pure EVO too strongly flavoured – too olivey to be exact – so instead use 2 parts sunflower to 1 part olive. The resulting mayo is still rich and eggy, but has a little more finesse than the usual uber-olive slap in the face.
Sunflower oil works particularly well for preserving sundried tomatoes and other vegetables in the Italian style of sotto oleo (under oil). Made in the traditional way – with olive oil – any subtleties of the produce are lost under a screaming excess of olive. So, once again, a 2-1 dilution works very well to my taste. (It’s easy to get carried away with the romance of preserving things in oil; it seems so very easy and the results look almost better than they taste, which is seriously saying something. But be aware that it’s also a potentially lethal practise, which in the wrong hands can lead to botulism poisoning and ergo a whole world of unpleasantness. So for the love of Vishnu, do your homework first. A very good place to start is by reading Preserving the Italian way. This extraordinary book remains the only authentic English language-guide to traditional Italian preserving methods, covering everything from jams and pickles to salami and hams. It’s a wonderful read and deserves prime real estate on any serious Food Lovers bookshelf.)
Disappointingly for most newcomers to grape seed oil, it doesn’t taste even remotely of grapes. Actually it doesn’t really taste of anything at all, but this quality, coupled with a very high burning point, is what makes grape seed oil one of the unsung heroes of the modern kitchen. This is the oil to use when you don’t want your food to taste oily. It has a remarkably light mouth-feel and squeaky- clean finish, making it is equally well placed in salad dressing or the frying pan. Grape seed oil is a relatively new product – as in the last few decades – and is unsurprisingly a by-product of the wine industry. It has a reputation for being one the finest oils for deep-frying, but is (at least according to my finances) a tad too pricey for this extravagance. If you can afford such lavish fry-ups, then by all means go crazy.
If you’ve ever wondered what exotic plant, nut or seed yields canola oil you’re in for a bit of disappointment. Canola is simply the patented name for a couple of strains of rape (a type of mustard). The word is a hybrid anagram for Canadian Oil Low Acidity and, as you might have guessed, it was first developed in Canada. Canola has that classic cooking oil aroma, and although too coarse for salad dressings or mayo is well suited to deep-frying, as it lacks the heavy, lingering odour that is typical of other low-cost oils.
The biggest negative associated with Canola is that it is one of the most genetically altered of all food crops (which despite what certain zealots would have you believe is not necessarily a bad thing in itself). What is really worrying is the reason why canola has been so wildly manipulated -to resist herbicides. This means farmers can cheerfully douse their canola crops with what would be, to any other plant, a lethal dose of deadly chemicals, thus saving farmers the costly, laborious effort of manual or mechanical weeding. It also means that the crop has been exposed to an alarming amount of God knows what, which is often detectable and very possibly concentrated in the seed-oil.
To me soy oil is a bit of last resort. I don’t like the heavy, rank odour it releases when heated and, as with canola, the parent plant has a seriously buggered-up gene pool. However, it does lend itself very well to deep-frying (as long as you have a decent range-hood to suck away that awful chip-shop funk). In case I haven’t said it before, deep-frying really isn’t something to fear. As long you follow the golden rules of NEVER WALK AWAY, NEVER ABOVE 190 CELSIUS (some oils can be safely heated well above this but it’s a good safe guideline) and NEVER OVER-FILL ( some foods- especially if they are wet – cause much wild bubbling which in too small a pot will over-boil and burn like Hades in a heat-wave). The only limit to how much you can deep-fry is the width of your arteries.
Strictly condiment oil and a true must-have for any pantry with a bit of pride. Chinese dark sesame oil is pressed from roasted sesame seeds (unroasted sesame oil is popular in many Middle Eastern countries) and has a wonderfully rich, toasty flavour and that definitively ‘Asian aroma’.
This oil is best added to dishes just before serving – so as to preserve its potent, yet fragile, nature. It’s just dandy with pork and chicken, and has an even greater affinity for cashews and celery, odd as this may sound. Dark sesame oil is also an excellent base for the most exquisite Asian-accented vinaigrette. Shake or whisk together 2 parts dark sesame to 1 part soy sauce, 1 part rice vinegar and good slug of fish sauce. This dressing lifts any salad well beyond the over-blown garnish status, and is especially good with finely shredded, raw Savoy cabbage and a scattering of roasted peanuts.
And finally, the almost rans:
This was the darling of the health-conscious set not so long ago and, as is consistent with all they hold near and dear, it’s vile stuff. Blessed with a wet-cardboard aroma and highly forgettable flavour, rice-bran oil is best left to those with whose main criterion for food is how well it will regulate their bowels. Tastes better than cod-liver oil I suppose.
I tried with all my might to like coconut oil, but the fact is it stinks. Really stinks. The rancid, almost viscous ‘fragrance’ permeated every thread of every soft furnishing in my house, and I was duly banned from ever using it again. But that wasn’t the end of the fetid affair: I tipped the entire economy size bottle down the kitchen sink (with a good glug of detergent and a lot of hot water) and was then haunted by the distant, but undeniable, odour of stale coconut every time I went near a drain in or around my property for weeks.
I’ve since learned that some coconut oils are better than others for cooking and I might, one day pluck up the courage to try again. I’ve seen deodorised coconut oil – a lard-like solidified mass at health-food shops from time to time – but as with ‘lite’ olive oil, I really can’t see the point.
Well that certainly ended up being a more long-winded diatribe than I had in mind, so you’ll be pleased to know I’m done.
But now I want to hear what oils you use, abuse and detest. Come on. Out with it then.