Don’t be intimidated by the various kinds of oils on the grocery shelves. Here’s what you need to know when buying or cooking with oil.
Corn Oil, Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, and Vegetable Oil. These are just some of the many oil variants that you can see in groceries and supermarkets. Chances are, the first bottle you pull off from the shelf is either the cheapest oil, or some random bottle of Vegetable Oil, because who could go wrong with vegetable oil, right? But do note that Vegetable Oil comes from a plant source, like nuts, grains, beans, seeds or olives. It can be a blend of oils like Coconut and Palm oil, but it is NOT oil made from vegetables like cabbage.
And here’s the thing. The kind of oil that you use matters. It affects the taste, texture and the flavor of your food. Some oils have a strong flavor, some burn faster, and some have a neutral flavor.
Now here are the different things that you need to consider before choosing which cooking oil to use:
1. Properties of the Oil. This refers to the composition of the oil—from its unique flavor profile, source, smoke point and cloud point.
- Smoke Point. Defined as “the temperature at which heated fat or oil starts to break down and burn, giving an unpleasant taste to food”, this means means that for high-temperature cooking methods like deep frying, your oil needs to be stable enough to withstand the heat without burning or going rancid.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil has a smoke point ranging from 375OF, while Canola Oil has a smoke point of 464OF. Refined Corn Oil and Soya Oil can go as high as 450OF, and Palm Oil has a smoke point of 455OF.
But did you know that you can actually raise the smoke point of an oil that burns easily? If you’re cooking with butter to incorporate its flavor into your dish, you can raise its smoke point by adding an oil with a high smoke point to it.
- Cloud Point or Solidification Point. Ever wonder why some oils like Coconut Oil become solid when you refrigerate them? That’s because of its high Saturated fat content. But don’t worry. Coconut Oil is made up of medium-chain Triglycerides, so it’s not a bad kind of Saturated fat. On the other hand, there are some oils like Corn and Canola oil that don’t solidify when refrigerated, making them perfect for salad dressings. Palm Oil turns cloudy at temperatures of about 10OC. Do note that clouding does not affect the quality of the oil— it disappears when you heat the oil.
So, what is a Cloud Point? This is basically the point where Cooking Oil becomes cloudy or solidifies when exposed to cold temperatures.
- Flavor. Some oils like Corn Oil and Sunflower Oil are neutral, so when it’s used in cooking, it brings out the flavor of your dish. Sesame Oil is an aromatic oil with a strong flavor, so use this moderately. Otherwise, it overpowers your entire dish. Even the nature of the dish is important when you consider its flavor profile. For Oriental dishes, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean cuisine, Peanut, Sesame and Soya Oils are widely used.
2. Health Benefits. Like all other fats, oil should be used sparingly. Plant-based oils come loaded with its own unique blend of nutrients. Here are some of the health benefits for commonly used oils:
- Corn Oil: A heart-healthy oil that contains more plant sterols than Olive Oil. This helps fight bad cholesterol (LDL) by flushing it out from the body. It also prevents clogging and clotting in arteries by controlling Vitamin K in the body. It’s rich in Omegas 3 and 6, and has Vitamin E, which is an anti-oxidant that protects cells from free radicals that lead to cancer.
- Coconut Oil: Composed of Medium-chain Triglycerides, this oil is a life-saver for proper weight-loss. It gets metabolized easily, and doesn’t get stored as fat in the body. It contains Lauric Acid, which is essential in growth and immunity.
- Canola Oil: Like Corn Oil, it fights bad cholesterol with its plant sterol content. It’s one of the few oils with the lowest saturated fat content, which lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Plus, it has the ideal ratio of Omegas 3 and 6 that an average person needs. Just make sure that the Canola Oil you buy does not have any Erucic Acid, because that is very harmful for the body.
3. Application. This last factor ties everything else together because the end-product is the food that you prepare with your Cooking Oil. Be it cooking, baking, or for raw dishes, each cooking oil has its own niche.
- Deep Frying: To get your food to have a crispy texture, Palm Oil is your best bet here because it’s a stable oil that also has a high smoke point, allowing it to withstand high temperatures. Vegetable Oil (made from a blend of Palm and Coconut Oils) can also be used for deep frying.
- Stir Frying: The heat goes up quickly with this one, so I would recommend Coconut Oil or Soya Oil for stir fried dishes. Coconut Oil brings out the flavor in vegetable dishes more, while Soya Oil has the oriental flavor that most stir fry dishes need. Also, it has a high smoke point that allows it to withstand the high temperatures of your wok.
- Sautéing: This doesn’t require an oil with a high smoke point, just as long as you keep an eye on what you’re cooking. Oils like Olive Oil, Corn Oil, Coconut Oil and Canola Oil will do nicely for this, depending on the cuisine that you plan on preparing. Just pay special attention when you use Olive Oil because its smoke point is relatively low compared to other oils.
- Searing: For this cooking technique, you need to heat your oil up quickly before putting in your meat, so an oil with a high smoke point is needed. Corn Oil is a good candidate for this because it keeps meat tender, and locks in the meat’s juices.
- Baking: Baked goods are left in the oven in high temperatures, so again, an oil with a high smoke point is needed. Corn Oil is recommended for baked goods like cakes because of its neutral flavor and high smoke point. It also contains Lecithin, an emulsifier that helps blend water-based and oil-based ingredients better. Also, it does not solidify when refrigerated, so the moistness of cakes and other baked goods are maintained even when stored in cold places.
- Salad Dressings: An important criterion for choosing your oil for salad dressings would be its freezing point—rather, oil that does not solidify when refrigerated. Corn and Canola oil does not change its form, making it good for salad dressings. The Lecithin content for Soya and Corn Oil helps blend ingredients better, making it good for cream-based and oil-based dressings, while Olive Oil remains as a staple in vinaigrettes.
This goes to show that cooking oils even come with their own set of compositions, smoke points and health benefits, so not all cooking oils are the same. They each have their unique features, and if used correctly, can add new depth and flavor to your cooking.
Tip: Check the label of your cooking oil before you buy it. The more informative it is, the better. Also, pay close attention to its ingredients, especially if you’re looking at Vegetable Oils. Some oils may actually be oil blends, while others are pure.