Cooking oils are extracted from plant sources like nuts, olives, and seeds, each of which imparts its own flavor. Those high in monounsaturated fats (typically good sources of vitamin E) and polyunsaturated fats (like omega-3s) don’t raise and may even lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol; choosing them is the first step in lowering your risk of heart disease.
One of the most common oils, canola is the lowest in saturated fat (it has just 7 percent) and delivers a generous amount of healthy monounsaturated fat. Its neutral flavor makes it ideal for cooking and baking. It’s also good for pan-frying on low to medium heat.
Distinctively flavored, these oils taste of the nut from which they are extracted; walnut, almond, pistachio, macadamia, and hazelnut are among the most common. Their pronounced flavors tend to evaporate when exposed to heat (which can also make them bitter), so they are best used for flavoring salad dressings or for drizzling into soups or over bruschetta, vegetables, or fruits. Nut oils are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids (especially walnut oil, which also has a low 9 percent saturated fat) and vitamin E.
Aromatic olive oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fat and antioxidants. Its color varies from pale yellow to dark green, its flavor from mellow to bitter, from buttery to nutty, and from fruity to grassy, depending on where it’s from and how it’s processed. It has a moderate smoke point (the temperature at which it begins to burn) and so is best used for drizzling on vegetables, adding to salad dressings, and cooking foods at low to medium temperatures. Of the various classes of olive oil, extra-virgin (made from the first cold-pressing of the olives, which best preserves their nutrients) is the most flavorful. It’s also the most expensive, so reserve it for dressings and drizzling on finished dishes, not cooking. The more information a producer puts on the label (kind of olives used, date of harvest, and so on), the more likely the oil is to be of a superior quality.
Because it has a high smoke point (the temperature at which it begins to burn) and doesn’t impart a strong flavor to foods, golden peanut oil is especially prized for frying. It has a good amount of healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats but also is relatively high in saturated fat (17 percent).
With a high smoke point (the temperature at which it begins to burn), this neutral-flavored oil made from safflower seeds is handy for deep-frying and is also used in salad dressings. It has a high level of polyunsaturated fats but no vitamin E and keeps well (it doesn’t solidify in the refrigerator).
High in mono- and polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants, nutty-tasting sesame oil comes in two basic forms. Light oil, pressed from untoasted seeds, has no strong aroma, so goes well with many dishes. Dark toasted-sesame oil, used in Asian and Indian dishes, has a more concentrated flavor and more antioxidants and vitamin E; it is used for flavoring, as a condiment, or in stir-fries (sprinkled over them at the end of cooking), not for frying.
Any oil derived from plant matter can be called vegetable oil, but products labeled as such are probably soybean or canola oils or blends. They have a light color, a neutral flavor, and a high smoke point (the temperature at which they begin to burn), making them ideal for frying and sautéing as well as baking.
How to Store Oils
Although oils can be stored at room temperature, they deteriorate more rapidly when exposed to heat, light, and air. Vegetable, canola, and safflower oil last for up to 2 years when kept in a cool, dark place, far from the heat of the stove. Olive oil keeps up to 6 months in a cool, dark place, preferably in an opaque container (clear glass bottles can be wrapped in tinfoil).
For the longest storage and maintenance of flavor, refrigerate nut and sesame oils for up to 8 months; if they turn cloudy, they will quickly liquefy at room temperature. Discard any oils that develop an overly bitter taste or an off odor.
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