Choosing the Right Oil

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My grandfather was born and raised on a farm in Oklahoma and bacon grease was his main kitchen staple. He kept a can of it on the back of the stove and collected every drop from his bacon. He fried his breakfast in it. He'd season his kidney beans with it. And upon occasion, he'd even use it to fry chicken. Bacon grease supplied an important, cheap source of calories for my grandfather and his brothers, and it was all they had.

Today, I'm happy to say that for most of us, things have changed. Greatly. We all know that eating bacon grease is no good for the pig or us. And fortunately, today we have access to an array of fruit- and vegetable-based oils for our culinary adventures.

I thought I'd run through some of my personal favorite oils with notes on why I like them and how I use them.

Quite possibly, nut oils top my list, particularly unfiltered nut oils. Long used in parts of Europe where it is too cold for olive trees to thrive, nut oils (especially walnut and hazelnut) have become increasingly popular here in the U.S. Producing nut oils is a little trickier than producing olive oil. First, you need different equipment. The idea is to crush every drop of oil out of the nuts when you press them, while one wants to avoid crushing the heck out of olives because the olive pits add a very bitter note to olive oil. Second, nut oils tend to be highly perishable and oxidize easily, so the oil is extracted and bottled very quickly, with careful handling along the way. Why go to all this trouble? If you've ever tasted high-quality unrefined walnut oil, you wouldn't ask. Look for toasted walnut, hazelnut, pistachio, or almond oil at specialty food stores or online. (Toasting or roasting the nuts before crushing brings out the nutty aroma and stronger nut flavor.) These oils (unless refined) are not for used cooking, but are delicious drizzled over a Waldorf salad, for instance, or used to dress the freshest of greens.

Seed oils have an even wider range of varieties and uses, and one of my earliest favorites is unrefined sunflower seed oil. (I nearly always prefer unrefined oils for their greater authenticity of flavor and aroma, and I use these in raw or uncooked preparations. Refined oils are more suitable for cooking because there is little particulate matter to burn or smoke in them.) Grapeseed oil, a by-product of the wine industry, is currently all the rage with high-end restaurant chefs for its versatility as a cooking oil and as an oil light and flavorful enough to be used raw in salad dressings and the like. Sesame oil, one of my personal favorites, adds Asian flair to almost any dish. I like both toasted and plain versions. Flaxseed oil is valued for its rich omega 3 and 6 fatty acid content, and can be added to most anything, including smoothies. I've also tasted delicious roasted pistachio seed oil.

Peanut oil, toasted and refined or unrefined, is delightful for cooking or when used in uncooked preparations (see recipe below). Just be careful not to serve it to anyone with an allergy to peanuts! (This holds true of walnut oil, as well.)

As for the oils expressed from fruits, we have avocado and olive oil. (Bet you never stopped to think of them that way, but both avocados and olives are, botanically speaking, fruit.) The subject of olive oil is vast enough to merit a blog post of its own, but suffice it to say that there are many different styles and great variation in quality among olive oils, and few among us know what to look for when buying them. Considerations such as color, flavor profile (ranging from oil with a real bite to oil that is smooth, mellow, and fruity--my favorite) may vary from country to region to producer. I rarely cook with olive oil, and instead prefer to buy small quantities of extra virgin first-press oil, which I drizzle over anything I can find that looks even remotely compatible with the olive flavor and aroma: tomatoes, cheese, lettuce salads, veggies, soups, and so on. If you want to cook with olive oil, I'd recommend going with "pure" olive, a lesser and milder grade of olive oil commonly found in grocery stores.

Avocado oil, while edible, and like olive oil, high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, is often used for cosmetic purposes. Finding unrefined avocado oil for culinary use is almost impossible.

Perhaps the mostly widely used and available of oils are corn, Canola (from the rapeseed), and safflower. Since corn is considered one of the more pesticide-laden agricultural products, I would only choose an organically produced version. (It goes without saying that I always look for and buy organic oils whenever possible. The thought of all those chemicals concentrated in my salad is one I find most unappetizing, to say nothing of the effect upon the land.) While I have tasted a very good toasted, unrefined corn oil, these three oils are usually chosen refined for their very neutral or nonexistent flavor and aroma and for their convenience for sautéing, browing, and frying.

Keeping the oil as fresh as possible will yield the best flavor. Buy them in small quantities and in small bottles whenever possible. Store them away from heat and light. (I always store my oils in the refrigerator.) And for a high-quality, unrefined nut oil, chosen for its delicate flavor and aroma, I use a trick developed for wine lovers: nitrogen. A squirt of nitrogen from a small can that can be purchased at most wine shops will protect the oil from the damaging effect of oxygen, which quickly deteriorates flavor and aroma.

Dressing for a Fruit or Veggie Salad

½ cup apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

½ cup unrefined toasted peanut oil

salt to taste

Try this over an avocado-and-apple salad garnished with chopped roasted peanuts and cilantro.