Understanding Cooking Oil OptionsPublished on March 21, 2016

  • Executive Chef Geoffrey Morden; Shaw Centre
    Photo by: Mark Skinner

  • Butter in a pan

  • Almond Oil

  • Oil

Like so many ingredients over the past few decades, cooking oils and other fats have come under intense scrutiny. First we’re told to ditch butter in favour of heart-healthier plant-based fats. Then we hear that palm oil, coconut oil and even margarine are often high in saturated fat. To make matters worse, some margarines contain hydrogenated fats or trans-fats (caused when liquid oil is transformed into a solid fat) too, which act like saturated fats and are known to raise cholesterol levels. So maybe butter is better after all?

My take on butter is simple. Use it in moderation. It tastes delicious and imparts a great texture and flavour to sauces, baked goods and more. Despite containing saturated fat, it’s also a great source of Vitamin A and selenium. I’ll always opt for butter instead of margarine, unless there are dietary restrictions to accommodate.

When it comes to oils, it’s not quite so simple, because there are so many options. The biggest factors to consider are taste and smoke point, and both relate to how refined the oils are. Refining removes the impurities that can cause the oil to smoke when heated, so more refined oils have a higher smoke point. The more refined an oil (canola, sunflower and regular or “pure” olive oil), the lighter it is in colour, the more neutral its flavour and the higher its smoke point, making these oils better for cooking and frying.  Oils that are not as refined ( hazelnut, walnut and extra virgin olive oil, for example) typically have a more robust flavour and lower smoke point, making them better for things like salad dressings, marinades and last minute touches.

It’s important to pay attention to smoke point because fats are generally considered unfit for consumption after they’ve exceeded their smoke point begun to break down. Butter has a relatively low smoke point of 350F which is why it is often not recommended for frying, however, clarified butter, sometimes called ghee, can have a smoke point as high as 485F, making it a better choice for frying.

That might all sound confusing, but I’ll try to give you a few tips about when to use various types of commonly-found cooking oils:

  • Almond Oil – with its subtle toasted almond flavour, almond oil has a relatively high smoke point of 420F and is useful for sautéing vegetables, especially if you are making Asian dishes such as stir fries.
  • Avocado Oil – notable for its vibrant green colour, avocado oil has a mild, almost nutty taste and is considered a very healthy oil. Its high smoke point of 520F makes it ideal for searing and frying both meats and vegetables.
  • Canola Oil – this is one of my favourite all-purpose oils, thanks to its light golden colour neutral flavour and typically made in Canada from Canadian Canola seeds. With a smoke point of 400F, it can be used for frying, but it’s equally appealing in salad dressings and can also be used for baking. In some countries it’s sold as rapeseed oil, which is the proper name of the plant from which the oil is extracted. If you can find extra virgin canola oil, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its complex aroma and flavour.
  • Coconut Oil – this is all the rage now and touted for its healthy properties. This oil is typically sold in a minimally refined state.  Solid at room temperature it has a consistency and appearance of white butter.  This oil can be used for cooking, imparting a sweet tropical flavour.  Additionally, this oil is an important ingredient in many homemade remedies including, lip balm, hand moisturizer and burn cream to name a few.  Only time will tell if the current infatuation with coconut oil will stand up.  
  • Corn Oil - it's very similar to canola in terms of appearance, taste and usage, but has a higher smoke point of 450F. While corn oil was very popular in the late 20th century, many people today prefer canola to corn oil.
  • Grapeseed Oil – a by-product of wine making, this light yellow oil is a great choice for sautéing, frying or for salad dressings. Its smoke point is 392F.
  • Olive Oil – depending upon the variety of olive and the amount of processing, olive oils vary in colour from pale yellow to a deep green. Extra virgin olive oils typically have a lower smoke point (about 320F) as well as a richer colour and more intense flavour; these are best for salad dressings, as a finishing oil, or for quick cooking. Virgin Olive Oil has a smoke point of 420F and extra-light Olive Oil has a smoke point of 468F, making both suitable for frying.
  • Sesame Oil – you may find this in both a light and dark version; I prefer the darker Asian-style oil made from toasted sesame seeds. It’s good for salad dressings and for cooking, with a smoke point of 410F.  I recommend using this oil sparingly as its flavour can easily overpower a dish.
  • Sunflower Oil – This light coloured oil has very little flavour and a high smoke point of 450F. While it can be used for salad dressings, its best use is for frying.

At specialty food shops or large grocery stores, you can usually find smaller bottles of various oils. I encourage you to try working with a few different ones to determine which ones you like. You can add a lot of flavour to many dishes with the right oil, reducing the need for salt or other seasonings.

Chef Geoffrey Morden (Shaw Centre)

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