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What kind of fats and oils do you cook with? Do you reach for whatever you have on hand or do you take into consideration the smoke point, flavor, and method of cooking?

One might think that as long as the oil does its job of keeping your food from sticking to the pan than you're good to go…but think again!

One of the most important things to consider when picking out a fat or oil is its 'smoke point'. This is the temperature at which oil or fat gives off smoke. Once oil starts smoking it's no longer fit for consumption and should be discarded. Here are some points to remember:

  • By using the right oils and fats for the right reasons, you can preserve the healthful benefits.
  • Some oils can handle the heat while others cannot.
  • The lighter the color, the higher the smoke point.
  • For high-heat cooking (frying, searing, grilling, etc) choose fats/oils with higher smoke points (at least 400 °F).

Smoke Points (°F) of some common household fats and oils:

Butter

350

Canola

400

Coconut oil

350

Flax seed oil

225

Olive oil

465

Extra virgin olive oil

320

Safflower oil

510

Sesame seed oil- unrefined

350

Vegetable oil

400-450

What would you do?

You want to stir-fry some vegetables and chicken for dinner. You have extra virgin olive oil and canola oil in the cabinet. EVOO has a lower smoke point than canola oil. This means the EVOO will start to give off smoke at a lower temperature than the canola oil will. So which one would you use for stir-frying?

  • EVOO smoke point= 320 °F
  • Canola oil smoke point= 400 °F

Answer: the canola oil. EVOO is not suitable for high-heat cooking methods (stir-frying) due to its lower smoke point. In these instances you'll want an oil with a smoke point of at least 400°F. Wise choices include neutral-tasting peanut, canola, safflower, sunflower and vegetable oils.

Flavor is another important consideration when choosing a fat or oil for cooking.

Have you ever heard the term 'more fat, more flavor'?

Well it's true. Fat not only improves the overall 'mouthfeel' of your food it also improves the flavor and it does this in two ways.

  1. When fat is added to a dip, marinade, sauce, etc. it helps to distribute those fat-soluble flavors in the seasonings and herbs which makes them more pronounced and your food more palatable.
  2. Fats and oils all have their own flavor and some can be more noticeable then others in a cooked dish. For this reason you'll want to consider how these flavors might marry before you begin the cooking process. Unrefined oils like coconut, truffle, walnut, sesame and extra virgin olive oils all have unique flavors so adding them to your dish can enhance or even detract from the overall flavor profile.

What would you do?

You want to make an herb-in-oil dip for an appetizer which will be served with sliced baguette. The theme for the dinner is Italian. You have peanut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and vegetable oil in the cabinet. Which one will you use?

Answer: EVOO. Vegetable oil is automatically out because it is neutral tasting and is best reserved for high-heat cooking. You know peanut oil and EVOO both have unique flavors but the peanut oil doesn't fit in with your Italian theme. The EVOO works really well as a dip mixed with herbs and spices and is traditionally used in Italian cuisine.

Understanding Olive Oil Grades

Pressing tree-ripened olives extracts flavorful oil that is prized throughout the world both for cooking and for salads. Today's marketplace provides a wide selection of domestic olive oil and imported oils. The flavor, color and fragrance of olive oils can vary dramatically depending on distinctions such as growing region and the crop's condition. The best way to learn about olive oil taste and quality is to try a variety of brands and types.

Extra Virgin- oil from the first cold-pressing of the olives. Chemicals and high heats are not used in this process. To be considered 'extra virgin', the acidity level has to be below 1%. Reserve this type to use in salads or as a condiment.

Virgin- produced in the same manner as extra virgin olive oil and has not been refined. The acidity level must remain under 2%. This oil can be used more generously in cooking and is less expensive.

Olive Oil (aka pure olive oil) – is a blend of refined oil and virgin or extra virgin. It has also been refined, which causes loss of flavor. The acidity level must remain under 1.5%. The smoke point is higher so it can be used for higher heat cooking methods.

'Light', 'Mild'- olive oils with light or mild in the title are good for substituting in baked goods because, as the name suggests, they don't impart a strong olive flavor to the food. The name does not mean they are lower in calories.

Flavored- flavoring agents such as extracts or citrus zest are often added to extra virgin olive oil using a heat treatment. Homemade flavored oils should be used immediately (do not store) as they may promote bacterial growth that could cause foodborne illness.

 

Read more about eating fat in an age of low-fat-is-good-health dogma.

Today's post was written by Kristin Bogdonas, MPH. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and Nutrition & Wellness Educator covering Mercer, Henry, Rock Island and Stark Counties. She specializes in mindful eating, local and seasonal foods, and food safety/preservation.