Choosing The Right Oil For Grilling, Marinating, Summer Cooking
This is the 4th of July week, and I betcha thought I was going to talk about grilling, or salads or simply cold meals, but those recipes are everywhere right now. Instead I’m going to talk about something that’s a vital part of most of those recipes—oil. Like bread we consume more oil in summer than winter simply because it is so important to both the flavor and texture of cold dishes.
Oils are classified as fats in food references. That category is in turn divided into two, saturated and non-saturated fats. There’s been a lot of discussion about good fat verses bad fat, and low-fat labels are everywhere, but organically, there are two types of fats: solid and liquid. A third type, the trans-fatty acid, has been chemically engineered to bridge the gap between them.
Solid fats congeal at room temperature, and are composed of Saturated Fatty Acids. They derive mainly from animal sources, meat and dairy products, butter is a good example. On ingredient charts, solid fat content is listed simply as saturated fat. The body has difficulty in processing saturated fat and tends to store it, thus causing a weight gain. More importantly, because saturated fat raises cholesterol levels in the bloodstream, it is linked to heart and blood pressure problems. So, although a certain amount of saturated fat is necessary in our diets, it’s wise to avoid excess and to read product labels before buying.
Trans Fatty Acids are the middle ground. With two exceptions, coconut and palm oils, these are chemically created products that remain solid at room temperature by hydrogenating liquid oils. The result is that a portion of the liquid oil has been changed into a saturated fat. All margarines are in this category, as is Crisco, and fat levels vary. So read the label before you buy. Also caloric content remains fairly equal across this entire classification so don’t make the mistake of thinking trans-fats are ‘figure’ friendly.
Non-Saturated Fats which includes oils, remain liquid at room temperature, and are called monounsaturated, when derived from vegetables and include the Omega 3 fatty acids found in some fish, and polyunsaturated, when derived from seeds, including nuts. Generally, non-saturated fats are believed to lower cholesterol levels in the bloodstream
Oils exist in infinite variety, many ancient but several new, if one includes the blends and infusions. They range from the delicate dessert flavorings, to the sturdy deep fry agents, and their shelf life varies as well, so it’s wise to forego buying exotic oil, until there is a specific request for it, lest it go rancid (stale). Oils should always be stored in a cool dark place, even refrigerated once opened to extend their life. This may turn them cloudy but they regain clarity when returned to room temperature.
Many wonderful oils remained locked in their ethnic cuisines until the movement to expand culinary horizons began in the 1960s with the resultant urge to intermingle ingredients. Now oils that were only found in specialty stores are in the supermarkets. I was shocked recently to see the array of oils in Walmart! Experimenting with them can be a marvelous taste adventure. Several can even stand on their own without help from other ingredients. I fondly recall relishing a fresh pear salad on mixed baby greens lightly dressed with only a drizzle of walnut oil.
One test of oil’s functionality is its smoke point. This is the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke and will taint the taste of the food. The most fragile oils can’t stand up to any heat and will break apart. Hardier ones can be used for baking and light sautéing, but reaching their smoke point over direct heat will fog your kitchen and possibly ignite. The safest choices are the cooking oils, with high smoke points (consult the chart below) found on the market shelves often under generic brand names. There are several choices but I like canola oil. It’s lighter than the others, tasteless and can do multi-purpose, even a dressing base.
Don’t be afraid to try different brands either, or different countries of origin. For example the runaway favorite for salads is olive oil, graded from regular to extra virgin, light enough for dipping. Your choice depends on your personal taste but while you’re sampling olive oils, try the Greek and Spanish as well as the regular Italian. You might be surprised!
Below is a chart of several oils, their distinctive qualities and their uses, but first some tips on working with oil:
• Oil can be reused for frying 2-3 times. Strain it well and cool before storing. Remove any odors by storing it with slices of raw potato.
• To prevent messy rings on cabinet shelves, wrap a doubled paper towel around the middle of the bottle, secured with a rubber band.
• To mop up a spill, cover with flour, wait a few minutes and wipe up with paper towels.
• To dispose of used oil, either seal it in a jar or sop it up with paper towels then seal them in a plastic bag
• Oil is hot enough to cook when the surface shimmers
• To replace butter with oil, use 80% of the butter measurement.
• When making marinades which are to be used for basting or heated for sauces, and when choosing an oil to grease a grill choose an oil with a high smoke point. See the chart below
• Oils can be infused to give them custom flavor. Olive oil is the favorite base choice. Make sure the infusing ingredients are clean and dry before immersing them to avoid bacterial growth. If using herbs, bruise them slightly to release their oil. Seal tightly in a jar and leave in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks. Test to determine taste and when desired flavor is reached, strain and discard solids. Store, chilled for 1 month. Botulism is a concern, so at the first sign of spoilage discard it all. Alternatively, for quick results, heat the oil and infusions to 180 deg. cool, strain and serve.
OIL DESCRIPTION USE
Almond Toasted almond flavor, breaks down with heat Dressings, cold
Avocado Rich, buttery flavor, breaks down with heat Dressings, sauces
——————————————————————————————————————— Canola Flavorless, light yellow color, fairly high Dressings, sautéing,
Smoke point 435 deg. F frying, baking
Corn Mild flavor, yellow color, fairly low Sautéing, light
smoke point 410 deg. F frying
Grapeseed Mild flavor, high smoke point 445 deg. F Dressings, sautéing, frying
Hazelnut Aromatic hazelnut flavor, breaks down Dressings, sauces
with heat baking
Olive * Mild to rich olive flavor, pale yellow to deep Dressings, sautéing
green color, fairly low smoke point 410 deg. F light frying
Peanut** Neutral flavor, golden color, high smoke point Stir-frying, sautéing
450 deg. F frying
Pumpkin Roasted pumpkin seed flavor, green color, Dressings, sauces
breaks down with heat
Safflower Mild flavor, light texture, high smoke Sautéing, frying
point 450 deg. F
Sesame Strong nutty flavor, breaks down with heat Dressings, sauces
Soybean Mild flavor, light color, high smoke point 450 deg.F Sautéing, frying
Sunflower Light in flavor and color, breaks down with heat Dressings, sautéing
Walnut Rich walnut flavor, amber color, breaks down Dressings, sauces,
with heat baking
* Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing and is the lightest in color and most delicate in flavor. It should be used for dipping and dressings only. Virgin olive oil can also be used for quick sautéing but not frying. Olive oil can be used for all three.
** Once popular, peanut oil has all but disappeared from kitchens and markets due to increasing hypersensitivity in the general public. However, it and its fellow groundnut oil Brazil nut, to which I react, are still used in commercial preparations. Read labels carefully especially on baked goods.