Much like vinegar, cooking oil is such a broad category it can be hard to know which oil to use. There are so many options to choose from – olive oil alone has seemingly endless varieties. Keeping a well-stocked pantry means including a few different types of oils, but how do you know which oil to buy and which to skip? It all depends on how you like to cook, and oils are not as easily interchanged as vinegar varieties are. Here’s a little primer on oil types:
Olive Oil Olive oil is probably the most confusing cooking oil. I could write a whole post just on olive oil! There are hundreds of different varieties. Choosing an olive oil can be extremely complicated when one examines all the standards and characteristics that surround the oil-making process. Thankfully what is sold to the general public is broken down into just a few categories, most notably virgin, extra virgin, light, and pure.
Extra virgin is made from the first pressing of olive oil (where most of the “oil” is expressed out). It has a lower acidity level and is generally more “fruity” and bright tasting. Extra virgin is typically expeller pressed, which means the oil is squeezed from the olive by mechanical methods (ie – brute force!).
One grade below extra virgin is virgin, which is generally made from the second pressing of oil. It has a stronger taste than extra-virgin olive oil, but is still suitable for recipes and uses that require its first-pressing counterpart. Virgin olive oil is mostly expeller pressed, but not always.
Light olive oil (sometimes just referred to as “olive oil”) is from subsequent pressings. It is typically not expeller pressed; instead, the oil is extracted by the use of chemicals. It has a strong taste and is best used for applications where the flavor will be masked by cooking (it can withstand high temperatures without altering the taste of the oil, so it is good for high-high cooking).
Pure olive oil is comprised of oil from the last chemical pressing of olives (which results in a strong flavor and high acidity) and is blended with vegetable oil. I never use it. I would suggest using this oil is for frying only.
Where the olives are grown also affects flavor (much like wine). The most common locales for olive oil production are Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and California (Spain leads in production). Really the only way to know which oil you like best is to taste it. Many bulk food stores and specialty grocers will allow you to taste oils and decide which is best for you (0r try this – invite a few foodie friends over and ask each to purchase a small bottle of a different olive oil. You can all taste each oil and decide which you prefer!).
Extra virgin olive oil is wonderful in dressings, marinades, dips, and quick-sauté dishes. Lower grades are good for cooking, frying and for infusing. When you buy olive oil, try to stick to expeller (or cold) pressed options to avoid added chemicals.
Vegetable Oil The category of vegetable oil includes corn, canola, safflower, peanut, or a blend of these oils. When I bake or fry, I use vegetable oil (or as we call it in my house, Wesson Oil). It has a neutral flavor and a high smoke point (meaning it can be heated to a high temperature without burning/smoking). It’s also relatively cheap, depending on what kind you buy (blended is the cheapest). I also keep a bottle of safflower oil for making homemade mayonnaise because of its nearly-absent flavor. Vegetable oil can be used for dips, dressings, baking, frying, and cooking. Organic and non-GMO varieties are available though sometimes hard to come by.
Seed Oil This type of oil includes pumpkin, coconut, flax, grape, hemp, cottonseed, and sesame (I’ve even seed watermelon seed oil!). Sunflower oil is considered a seed oil OR a vegetable oil – I guess it depends on who you ask. Seed oils are commonly required in Asian stir-fry recipes or dressings. They have a low smoke point and burn easily, so they are best used in no-heat applications or as a “finishing touch” to highlight a particular flavor note in a recipe. Seed oils are also great for homemade skincare regimens and have high potencies of vitamins and nutrients. Buy seed oils in small quantities and keep in the refrigerator after opening, because like seeds, seed oils can turn rancid quickly.
Nut Oil Walnut, cashew, almond, etc., make up the nut oil category. They are delicate in usage but assertive in flavor. Because of their finicky character, they are not well suited for heat applications and are best used to finish a dish (like a drizzle of walnut oil over a bowl of risotto) or in dressings, dips, and marinades. They can be hard to find and pricey.
So, which oils should you keep in your pantry? I suggest keeping an extra virgin olive oil, virgin (or light) olive oil, and a vegetable oil. If you’d like to try something new, add a seed oil to the mix (two things to note here: Coconut oil comes in a semi-solid form, kind of like shortening. Also, look in stores like Marshalls or HomeGoods for specialty oils. I often can find the same brand-name seed oil for half the price I would pay at a specialty market). I rarely (if ever) have a need to a nut oil, so I wouldn’t consider it a pantry essential. Try to buy oils in a tin or colored glass container and store in a cool, dark place (heat and light can damage the flavor of most oils, especially olive oil). I purchase my olive and vegetable oils by the gallon, then transfer into smaller decanters or cruets for easy pouring.