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How Do I Choose the Right Oil for My Recipe?


Walk down the oil aisle at the supermarket and you may be surprised to see the variety of oils available to purchase. There are so many choices when choosing an oil to bake, sauté, stir-fry or fry with. The world of cooking oils is a big, confusing place. How do you know which one is right?

Choosing the right oil depends upon its intended use.

If using it to fry, then considering an oil’s smoke point is crucial. The smoke point is where oil starts burning and smoking; it is also called the burning point and can range from relatively low 325 F to very high 520 F. If you heat oil past its smoke point, it not only harms the flavor, but many of the nutrients in the oil degrade, and the oil will release harmful compounds called free radicals.

There are different uses for oils.

Extra Virgin Olive oil has a distinctive flavor. Depending on its place of origin, it can range in flavors from fruity to bitter and even buttery. It has a smoke point of 325 F, which does not make it good for baking or anything that you do not want to taste like olive oil. It is great sprinkled over steamed vegetables for added flavor or mixed in a salad dressing. It has a storage life of 2-3 years if kept in a cool, dry place.

Light Olive Oil might be referred to as pure or regular. It is made by commercially crushing the olives into a paste, then extracting the excess water. Refining olive oil strips out some antioxidants, it also raises its smoke point. It is less expensive and has a more neutral flavor than EVOO. It is also lighter in taste and color. Its smoke point of 465-470˚ F makes it ideal for high-heat cooking. 

Peanut oil is used when high heat temperatures are required, such as stir-frying and frying. It has a smoke point of 450 degrees making it ideal for frying turkeys or fish. It has a nutty flavor and when cooking for someone with nut allergies, this one needs to be avoided. It has a shelf life of 3 years.

Sesame oil is used when an additional layer of lightly nutty, sesame seed like flavor is wanted. It is used in cooking Asian dishes as well as, in salad dressings, and as a finishing oil. It has a smoke point of 410 degrees and a shelf life of 1-2 years. It should be stored in the refrigerator after opening.

Canola oil can tolerate high heat like peanut oil and has a 400 F. smoke point. The flavor of canola is mild and neutral, making it great for baking and wok or stir-fry cooking.  It is interchangeable with vegetable oil. Three tablespoons can be used to replace one fourth cup of butter or shortening in moist, dense cakes and quick breads. It has a shelf life of 1 year and should be stored at room temperature.

Coconut oil is one of the more controversial oils, nutritionally speaking. It gets both a lot of praise and criticism. Coconut oil has a 350 degree F. smoke point. It is almost solid at room temperature which is where the controversy comes in with regard to fat content. It is high in saturated fat which we should use in moderation. It has a slightly-sweet coconut flavor when in its virgin form. It has a shelf life of 2 years. Store on the shelf. While you don't need to cut it out completely, don't make it your go-to oil just yet.

Vegetable oils is made by blending several vegetable based oils. It is blended to have a higher smoke point, yet has little flavor. The smoke point is around 350 degrees depending upon the blend, meaning they'll burn at a lower temperature. It is best used for cooking at lower temperatures, and in salad dressings. It has a mild almost vegetable flavor. The shelf life is 1 year and should be stored at room temperature.

Vegetable shortening comes in a solid form, yet melts well. It has a smoke point of 200 degrees and is best used in baking. It is flavorless, unless you buy the butter flavored. The shelf life is 6 months to 1 year and should be stored at room temperature. 

Real butter may be salted or unsalted. When using real butter, I go for the unsalted; it allows me to control my sodium. It has a smoke point of 350 degrees so burns easy. It is best for baking or cooking. It has a creamy flavor, which could be salty depending upon the variety. Shelf life is 1-9 months depending upon refrigerator or freezer storage.

The shelf life may depend on a number of factors. Those stored at room temperature may be affected on climate. Extremely hot or cold temperatures can affect either the consistency of stored oil or the actual shelf life.

If your oil ever tastes bitter, it may be rancid and shouldn’t be used. It will give your food an off flavor.

Hopefully this gives you enough information to know how to cook with oils and other fats to avoid a culinary mess in the kitchen.