Chanukah might be known as the Festival of Lights, but for cooks, it’s really all about the deep fried oily foods that become an indispensable part of our menu. I’ve noticed that during this time, I smell like a fast food joint for 8 days straight; you’d think that I had deep fried my clothes, my shoes, everything I touch.
So what better time is there to discuss the oils we use in cooking? It is important to become familiar with the different types of vegetable oils for best results in baking, frying, and serving with fresh foods. Vegetable oil may be made from a single ingredient or a blend of several. Most will be available as either refined (lighter in color and bland) or unrefined. Depending on the refining process, oils will have varying smoke points. Refined oils (especially peanut or safflower oil) are recommended for high-heat frying. Unrefined oils are best as dressings, as an ingredient in marinades, and for low-temperature sautéing. Some of these are a healthier choice and will be full-bodied.
Canola oil – A versatile, neutral-tasting oil that contains the lowest level of saturated fatty acids of any vegetable oil. Choose canola oil for baking, deep-frying, fondue, grilling, sautéing, and stir-frying. I have it on good authority that in ancient times, canola was the oil of choice at the Judah Maccabee Fitness Gym because of its low fat.
Corn oil– The high smoke point of refined corn oil makes a valuable frying oil. Less expensive than most other types of vegetable oil, it also has very little odor or taste. Nu, so it doesn’t have much personality -- it’s just for cooking, not a marriage.
Sunflower oil – The image of sunflowers is healthy and natural, and so is the oil. Light in taste and appearance, its secret is that it supplies more vitamin E than any other vegetable oil. It’s so easy-going and versatile that it won’t complain if you use it for frying too.
Safflower oil – Not your best choice for those latkes. Flavorless and colorless (and nutritionally similar to sunflower oil), safflower oil doesn’t like to stand out in a crowd. It’s main mission is to blend in, so use it as cooking oil and for salad dressings.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Extra-virgin is the unrefined oil derived from the first pressing of the olives and has the most delicate flavor. Pure, extra virgin olive oil is not only a light and delicate addition to many wonderful dishes, it is one of the most health-promoting types of oils available. Ok, so I’m a little biased. This happens to be my all-time favorite oil.
Virgin Olive Oil– A rich, fruity oil used for marinades, dressings, baking and shallow frying. Hundreds of varieties of olives are used to make olive oil, so they vary in color, flavor, aroma, and character. It has a higher acidity level than extra virgin olive oil (as well as less phytonutrients and a less delicate taste). This one will burn beautifully in your menorah, but it’s not #1 for your latkes.
Grapeseed oil – With its very high smoke point, it can be safely used to cook at high temperatures, and it’s great for stir-frying, sautéing and deep-frying. It has a clean, light taste and is often used as an ingredient in salad dressings and mayonnaise. Use it as a base for oil infusions of garlic, rosemary, or other herbs or spices. (Just thinking about it makes me hungry.)
Peanut oil – While most vegetable oils add no discernible taste to foods, peanut oil is the exception. It tastes like, well, peanuts. So if you’re into peanut flavor, it’s excellent for high heat cooking. High in monounsaturated content, it is considered healthier than saturated oils, and it has a long shelf life. Though peanuts are not nuts, people with allergies should avoid cooking with peanut oil. Ditto if you have guests coming and you don’t want to have to call the doctor because someone is having a reaction to your food.
Soybean oil – Great for dressings and baking, soybean oil has very little flavor. It’s really up there as an emulsifier, which makes it a good ingredient for mayonnaise. But don’t count on it for perfect suganiot; you’re better off with one of its cousins.
Sesame oil – If you’re planning to cook Asian, this is for you. It’s popular as a cooking oil in South India, and is often used as a flavor enhancer in Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian cuisines. The aroma alone tips off everyone that they’re in for an exotic meal!
Two Tips (to keep in mind)
1. When reusing frying oils, remember that the smoke point may be lower than when it was fresh.
2. Vegetable oils will be good for about twelve months if stored properly (out of sunlight). They do not require refrigeration and may turn cloudy when cold.