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Mar 6, 2011 09:00 AM

Oil 101

The recently started thread on this board about what oils a properly stocked kitchen should have frightened me. Smoke points, harmfully heated olive oil, finishing oils?! I don't know what these things mean!

Is there a good primer on cooking oils that someone can point me to? I use canola or olive oil for everything, including cooking in my cast iron pans which I gather is unsafe somehow? What does your average home cook need to know about the different oils out there?

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  1. Whew, I thought I was the only one.

    I use olive oil, vegetable/canola, and peanut oil depending on what we're cooking or frying. Hopefully someone will respond with some basic oil 101!

    1. Ok, let me throw something out. One of the many reasons people love olive oil is for its supposed health benefits due to its composition: like high in monounsaturated fats and low in unsaturated fats... etc. However, extra virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point. It starts to smoke at a low temperature. Oils quickly start to decompose around its smoke point. Therefore, just because extra virgin olive oil has a good healthy composition at room temperature, it does not mean it is healthy above its smoke point. I think some people overlook this and do not think rationally. Here are some quotes:

      "it is believed that fats that have gone past their smoke points contain a large quantity of free radicals which contibute to risk of cancer."

      "not only should olive oil only be stored for a few months after opening, but you should also avoid cooking food with Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This is because exposure to excess air, light or heat causes the fat to oxidize. When fat oxidizes, harmful substances called “free radicals” are produced that cause damage to our body’s cells."

      It is probably not as scary as stated above, but using extra virgin olive oil for high temperature cooking is not really logic from a health perspective. What is too high? Well, when it smokes.

      If you want to know more about oil smoke point, there are various lists on the internet. They are not exactly the same, but general thread is similar -- like extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point. Needless to say, the smoke/fume from the overheated oils is not a good thing either. Refined oils always have high smoke points than their unrefined/cold pressed counter parts. This is because refined oils are more "pure". There are two lists for you to start:

      2 Replies
      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

        Thank you for the excellent reply! In the other thread a couple of people alluded to the dangers of using olive oil for high temperature cooking but didn't say why it is bad (probably because it's common knowledge?).

        1. re: NikkiTikkiTavi

          Your welcome. I should clarify that refined/light olive oil has a much higher smoke point. It is the extra virgin olive oil which has a low smoke point. In short, not ALL olive oils are bad for high temperature cooking. Just go by your real observation, when you see the oil starts to smoke, then you know you have exceeded its smoke point. Not good. Many people cook above the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil, but if you can cook below it, then it is probably fine. Trust your eyes. Best.

      2. One issue about oils is function in the kitchen, the other is a health issue. I wouldn't recommend you use this site to get answers about health issues, but you might get good leads on where to go for your own research about that (other than googling each oil).

        On the functional side, I don't worry about the smoke points. I typically use the grill outside for "charring" anything and a bit of olive oil on a steak works fine. I also stir fry, but I don't do it like in China...and I deep fry only a few times per year- so peanut oil works for me. Think about the way you cook. That is more important.

        As in most foods, I think the more natural, less processed, more cold pressed, unrefined- the better for most applications.

        1. There's always a new theory out there to scare us. Remember when margarine was good? Coconut oil was bad? Chocolate bad too? How about alcohol of any kind? Trying to keep up with all the theories on what is good for you and what is bad can be a full time job. I think the best thing to do is eat "real" food and sit down for a meal with others every day.

          1. Nikki,

            You're over thinking things.

            Use the K.I.S.S. principle.

            All you really need are probably 2 different oils, maybe three at the most.

            A good EVOO, which is good for basic sauteeing, cooking, and as a finishing oil (ie. on pastas or even as a salad dressing).

            Then you need to find a good oil for those times you want to deep fry. Peanut and corn oil are my preferred weapons of choice when it comes to deep frying. Both are tasteless and have high smoke points good for deep frying.

            There, that's all you really need in terms of oil in the pantry and as far as what to do with cooking oil.

            3 Replies
            1. re: ipsedixit

              I second ipsedixit, while I love olive oil it's not right for everything, a marinade, dressing, a brief saute, maybe the base of a slow sauce sure. otherwise canola or peanut IMHO. and maybe sometimes get all crazy with a splash of sesame for flavor.

              1. re: ipsedixit

                I never deep fry, assuming my understanding of the term is correct. Meaning submerging food completely in hot oil? I saute or stir fry often, usually in a cast iron pan. Would peanut or corn oil be more appropriate for those situations than EVOO? According to ChemicalKinetics' link upthread EVOO shouldn't be used for cooking. Or is that me worrying too much?

                1. re: NikkiTikkiTavi

                  You can saute and stir fry with EVOO. Most sauteeing and stir frying don't reach temps where the EVOO will start to smoke and the fats oxidize. So you're safe.

                  That said, I wouldn't stir fry with EVOO (at least for Chinese dishes) because of the strong flavor that EVOO imparts, better to use a neutral oil like corn or peanut.

                  Good luck and hope that helps.