We’re willing to bet there’s a bottle or two of cooking oil lying around your kitchen. It’s one of the handiest tools in your culinary arsenal. Oil helps us brown and crisp up foods, accentuate flavors, prevent sticking, and more.
It’s easy to take this everyday ingredient for granted when in fact there are so many cooking oils on the market, each with its own flavor and strong suit. We turned to the food scientists at our partner Cargill for a rundown of what you should know about oil. Here, Stacy Borders and Jacob Schaller (left to right in photo) impart their expert knowledge—along with a couple Cargill recipes to try at home. Let’s get cooking!
OIL FAST FACTS
Nutrition profile: Oil is 100% fat, but don’t let that scare you off! As we’ve covered before, fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet that can add depth of flavor to dishes. Fats can also help keep us full after eating and there are even some vitamins that need fats to be absorbed properly. The key is to focus on the good kind.
Diets containing unsaturated fats are associated with good heart health, lower risk of type 2 diabetes, and a reduced risk for certain cancers. Saturated fat is the unhealthy type to watch out for. “The USDA recommends limiting saturated fats, which are shown to raise the risk of heart disease and other conditions,” says Stacy, a Business Development Technical Services Manager with Cargill.
She recommends choosing cooking oils with mostly good (unsaturated) fats. For example, canola has the lowest level of saturated fat. There’s also vegetable oil, a generic term that refers to oil taken from a variety of plant sources, which is often higher in mono- and polyunsaturated fats.
Smokin’ hot: We can’t talk about cooking oil without touching on smoke points. You’ll see this expressed as a temperature, ranging from 375 to 520 degrees Fahrenheit. “The smoke point is the temperature you can safely heat an oil or fat to before it will literally start to smoke,” explains Jacob, a Cargill Development Scientist. “Exceeding the smoke point can result in fires—something you definitely want to avoid.” No smoke alarms, please!
Most vegetable oils are highly refined and can better withstand high-heat techniques like searing, pan frying, and sautéing. Also good to know: As you reuse cooking oil, smoking will start to happen at lower temperatures.
Oil vs. shortening: Oil and shortening are often interchangeable in recipes—but there are some differences. “Oil is liquid at room temperature, while shortening is solid at room temperature,” Stacy explains. “Shortening works well in baking and lends a traditional flavor to pie crusts, like grandma used to make. Its name comes from the fact that it shortens the gluten during the baking process.” She adds that beyond baking, many health-conscious cooks prefer to use oil for the health benefits that come with mono and polyunsaturated fat.
Storage tips: The best place for your cooking oil might not be right next to the stove. That’s because “exposure to light, heat, air, and moisture can all affect oil’s quality and taste,” Jacob tells us. “Store most oils in a cool, dark place like your pantry or a cabinet.” And always put the cap on tightly!
Shelf life: “An unopened bottle of oil can last from a few months to a year depending on the type,” says Stacy. To minimize food waste, buy bottle sizes according to how much you’ll use within this timeframe.
YOUR COOKING OIL LINE-UP
It can be daunting to browse the cooking oil selections at the grocery store. Lined up side by side, those pretty bottles all look the same, don’t they?
“Technically, you can use most oils for most cooking jobs,” shares Jacob. “But for the best outcome, choose your oil based on how you’re going to use it, your personal nutrition goals, and your flavor preferences.”
Here he and Stacy cover some common cooking oils and where they tend to shine.
Canola: This is a favorite among the Cargill team for its neutral taste. “Canola has a clean flavor that lets the food come through—plus it is plentiful with monounsaturated fats, making it a healthy choice,” Jacob shares.
Olive: With its quintessentially Mediterranean flavor, olive oil is great for sautéing, dipping warm bread, roasting, and as a base for salad dressings. Because it is pressed and not refined, extra-virgin olive oil offers a more intense flavor and lower smoke point than regular oil which requires a bit more attention to stay safe.
Soybean: Often masquerading as “vegetable oil,” soybean oil can have a mild, buttery flavor. It’s an affordable, all-purpose pick. However, it can leave a gummy residue on your pans over time.
Peanut: Peanut is widely used for frying thanks to its high smoke point. Fully refined peanut oil is free of allergens, making it safe for most people with a peanut allergy.
Corn: Adds a subtle sweetness and golden color that many cooks prefer, and is also ideal for frying foods.
Sunflower: Is growing in popularity, with a one-of-a-kind flavor. “We find that sunflower oil tastes nutty on its own, with a very mild flavor,” Jacob explains.
Avocado: Almost as popular as avocados themselves! High in heart-healthy fats, avocado oil has a very high smoke point of 520 degrees, so you can use it for just about anything.
Coconut: This one has been in the limelight, too, but be careful how you use it. “Coconut oil has a low smoke point, so it’s not recommended for frying. It’s also quite high in saturated fat,” Stacy warns.
This list is just the beginning! Our friends at Cargill can attest there are a wide variety of cooking oils, each with different benefits. “Recently we’ve seen rice bran, grapeseed, and walnut oil trending, too,” Stacy shares. “Finding the right cooking oil is all about how and what you like to cook.”
OILS AND FLAVOR PROFILES
Now that you know the ins and outs of oil, it’s time to get cooking! Below is a chart that breaks out flavor combination ideas and the right oil to use (as well as some tried-and-true recipes).
|Flavor Profile||Oil||Recipe to Try|
|Spicy||Canola||Spicy Lime Marinade|
|Sweet||Corn||Maple Thyme Sweet Potatoes|
|Olive||Watermelon Tomato Salad|
|Savory||Canola||Turmeric Ginger Vinaigrette|
|Olive||Garlic Shrimp Zoodle Bowl|
|Chicken Satay Skewers|
|Sesame Crusted Tilapia|
with Garlic Vegetables
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.