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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Optimizing Oils: Cooking Oils 101

If you’ve been baffled by the serious diversity in the oil section of your grocery store, you’re not alone.  More and more specialty oils are available and it seems like there is always some new hype regarding one type or another.  Don’t worry, it doesn’t require a degree in food science to navigate cooking oils successfully and healthfully. 

Why oil?
Our bodies do need a certain amount of fat to maintain healthy skin, hormone levels and help with the metabolism and storage of certain vitamins.  Oils from nuts, seeds and vegetables contain mono and polyunsaturated fats and provide a healthier source of fat to protect against heart disease than saturated (solid) fat sources.  There are 2 main issues to consider when choosing a cooking oil:

Darker oils have stronger flavors (olive, sesame) and can impart the flavor of the oil’s source. 
Sesame oil adds great flavor to Asian and Indian style recipes.
Nut oils such as walnut and peanut oils add a certain nuttiness that works great for dressings or other dishes that are enhanced by a nut undertone.
Extra virgin olive oil is darker in color and has a tangier, fruitier flavor that makes it ideal for dressings or dipping bread. 

Smoke Point
Whether you are sautéing or frying, if high heat is involved, you’ll want to pay attention to the smoke point.  Smoke point is the temperature at which the oil’s chemical structure starts to break down, it will start to smoke and have an acrid taste.  Generally the lighter the color of the oil, the higher the smoke point, but some are higher than others.

Low smoke points – should only use in sauces, dressings, dips etc.

  • ·      Walnut
  • ·      Flaxseed
  • ·      Dark Sesame
  • ·      Unrefined Coconut
Moderate smoke points  - 400 degrees F (works for most cooking, sautéing and baking)

  • ·      Canola
  • ·      Extra Virgin Olive
High Smoke Points – best for frying or flash-frying

  • ·      Peanut
  • ·      Grapeseed
  • ·      Light Sesame
  • ·      Light Olive
  • ·      Vegetable
Regardless of the current hype on oils,  the safest, healthiest take on the subject is moderation and variety.  When I see that someone has a variety of cooking oils in their pantry, that is generally a sign of good health.  It indicates a greater variety of home-cooked meals in their diet.  And moderation reminds us that a little goes a long way, so whether you like coconut oil or olive or canola, the salient point is that oils play a minor role in your diet, making the type you choose less critical.  

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