Dining on a Dime: Cooking Oils

by Anastassia Skarlinski

Cooking oils are pretty essential in a lot of meals. Oils can help blend or enhance the flavors in the meal. In baked goods, they help reduce gluten development and make softer products. They can give better mouth feel to sauces and soups. It can also help to keep your food from sticking in the pan. Oils are also essential for health. Your body uses fats and oils in your diet to help you absorb certain vitamins, to help your body heal, and even to make hormones.

But there are a lot of different oils on the shelf, which one should you use? Well, it depends. Some products are better for cooking, some for baking, and some should only be used unheated. If your cooking oil is solid at normal room temperature (not a un-air-conditioned house in North Carolina in July) it is probably a saturated fat. Most saturated fats come from animal sources, such as butter; however, coconut oil is also a saturated fat. Coconut oil was hyped quite a bit in the last decade or so. Many of the claims concerning coconut oil have yet to be truly conclusive when it comes to its health benefits.

What you think of as oil, thin liquids at room temperature, are unsaturated fats, which come in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated varieties. Polyunsaturated fats are known as “essential” because your body cannot make them. One you may have heard of is omega-3. Omega-3 oils are found in fish, flax seed, chia seeds, and some nuts. The fish oil you may see in the store is only intended as a dietary supplement, do not use it to cook with! Monounsaturated fats are found in nuts, avocados, and in plant oils. Monounsaturated fats may help reduce cholesterol, which is beneficial for your heart.

Olive oil is particularly high in monounsaturated fats. In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena gave humans olives so that they would name their greatest city after her, Athens. The tree that she is said to have given still grows on the Acropolis in Athens. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is considered essential in many countries including Spain, Israel, Greece, and Italy. Countries are proud of their olive oils and can be very loyal to them. (My Greek husband says that I should tell you to only buy Greek olive oil!) Try a few different types and decide for yourself—see if you can taste the difference. You can also buy “world blends” that include olive oils from different parts of the world. While the antioxidant content in olive oil is highest when unheated, it can also be cooked with.

Canola, safflower, peanut, corn, and vegetable oils are some of the more affordable cooking oils you will find in the store. Vegetable oil is often a blend of some combination of all of these. These are all good for cooking, offering neutral flavor and relatively high smoke points. Some of these oils offer a more distinctive flavor than others, if you do not like one try a different one next time. For this reason, it is best to buy oil in small containers, and store them in a cool dark cabinet. Sunlight and age can cause oil to turn rancid. Rancidity causes unpleasant flavor and smell. You need to throw it out if this happens.

So, what can you do with cooking oil? Well, as previously mentioned, some version is used in just about anything. You can whip up a simple vinaigrette, you can use them for sautéing or roasting some vegetables, you can rub a little on meat before grilling to help browning and prevent sticking. Olive oil can be mixed with a little salt, pepper, and some dried herbs (I’m partial to dried oregano and rosemary) to make a truly excellent dip for bread. Try this warmed olive appetizer, it is quick, easy, and seems quite fancy.

Warmed Marinated Olives

4 oz unpitted (still has seed) olives green, black, or mixed

3 cloves garlic

1 lemon

½ cup olive oil

1 tsp dried thyme

1 tsp dried oregano

½ tsp black pepper

  1. Drain olives and place on a board or tray. Lightly crush the olives, just enough to break the skin and flatten slightly, with the heel of your hand. Place in a small saucepan.
  2. Lightly smash garlic cloves with the heel of your hand. Peel and place in same saucepan.
  3. With a vegetable peeler, peel the yellow rind of the lemon in wide strips. Add to the saucepan with the oil and spices. Heat over medium-low heat until garlic is sizzling around the edges. 5-10 minutes.
  4. Serve warm with bread. Feta or fresh mozzarella are also excellent with this.

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