Whether you're composing a spring salad, searing salmon or mixing up a pesto, oil is an essential component of cooking.
These days, there are more choices than ever, from designer olive oils to grapeseed, from nut oils to those infused with the trendy flavors of black and white truffles. Health is another consideration: The right oil can deliver lots of the so-called "good" monounsaturated fats; others are higher in artery-clogging saturated fat.
All of this gives rise to plenty of questions: Is extra-virgin olive oil always the best variety to use? Does smoke point matter? And what exactly is Enova?
Here, we offer a quick guide to cooking-oil types and terminology.
Refined oils have been processed to be more stable at high temperatures and are good for baking or stir-frying, according to wholefoodsmarket.com. Unrefined oil has been pressed and bottled, leaving more of its original flavor and color; it's best for sauces, dressings and dipping.
Oil is best kept in a cool, dark place. When you buy olive oil, look for a dark bottle or one wrapped in foil or cardboard, sitting on a shelf out of the sunlight, Deborah Krasner writes in The Flavors of Olive Oil. It's less likely to have gone rancid on the shelf. Clay or metal protect olive oil better than glass, she writes.
Store oil far from sources of heat. Some experts say the refrigerator is ideal for long-term storage, though others caution against it. Though oil kept there will solidify, it will become liquid again when brought to room temperature. The more fragile the oil, the smaller the amount you should buy at a time.
At a certain temperature, any oil will start to smoke and disintegrate. While you should try to avoid reaching this smoke point - foods should not be deep-fried above 375 degrees, Mark Bittman writes in The Best Recipes in the World - it offers a rule of thumb for cooking with oils. The higher the smoke point, the better the oil is for baking, frying or sauteing, and the less flavor it tends to have.
Canola oil - 400 degrees refined; 225 degrees unrefined
Enova - 420 degrees
Grapeseed - 400 refined; 320 or less unrefined
Olive oil - 410 degrees refined; 320 degrees extra-virgin or virgin
Peanut - 450 degrees refined; 320 degrees unrefined
Walnut - 400 degrees refined; 320 degrees unrefined
(Sources: hormel.com; wholefoodsmarket.com; enovaoil.com)
TYPES OF OIL
This darling of oils - for its versatility and monounsaturated fats - also offers the widest range of choices. Extra-virgin olive oil, the highest-quality oil, has acidity of no more than 0.8 percent, according to the International Olive Oil Council, and is the best choice for dishes in which flavor is key, such as sauces, dressings and drizzling on vegetables.
Virgin olive oils fit for consumption can have up to 3.3 percent acidity. Lower-acidity oils can be used as condiments; higher-acidity versions are better used for sauteing or frying. Both virgin and extra-virgin olive oils have been extracted from the fruit of olives without chemical alteration. Refined olive oil has been stripped of much of its flavor, but still can be useful for sauteing and frying.
In her 2002 book, The Flavors of Olive Oil, Deborah Krasner classifies dozens of olive oils by four flavor groups:
Delicate and mild, for tender new lettuces, fresh peas.
Fruity and fragrant, for salads and mild meats such as chicken.
"Olive-y" or peppery, for roasting meats, flavoring bread or robust pasta sauces, dressing whole grain, dipping bread (rub each slice with a bit of coarse sea salt first).
Leafy green/grassy, for bruschetta, strong salad greens, simple pasta.
A light-colored basic oil with little flavor, good for cooking because it can withstand high heat.
Made by immersing hot red chiles in vegetable oil; should be used only for flavoring, not cooking. Often used in Asian dishes.
This recently introduced vegetable oil claims to be better for you than others, not because it has less fat - it still packs about 14 grams a tablespoon - but because it has a higher ratio of diacylglycerol, a fat its makers claim is less likely to be stored as fat in the body. Cook's Illustrated magazine recently tested Enova in four recipes that normally would use shortening, olive oil, canola oil or peanut oil, and found that the newcomer performed just as well.
A neutral oil extracted from the seeds of grapes, a byproduct of the winemaking industry; becoming more popular among chefs for cooked and deep-fried dishes.
High in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats; used for frying, sauteing, Chinese dishes.
Most often extra-virgin olive oil or other high-quality oil infused with the flavor of black or white truffles, according to hormel.com. Use just a few drops to enhance sauces, risotto, meat, fish.
Strong-flavored, aromatic oils that complement salads. In The New Basics Cookbook, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins suggest combining them in a vinaigrette with a fruit or sherry vinegar.