I was formerly of the opinion that olive oil was the best oil, very good for us, almost a cure all–and that I should use it whenever I was going to use oil. I’ve since learned that it’s not quite that simple.
Olive oil is great raw–on salads or with some spices and balsamic vinegar for bread dipping. It’s an omega 3 fat, something most of us in this country need to eat more of. But cooking with it is not always the best option, especially at higher temperatures.
There is also some confusion as to the label “extra virgin” olive oil (also known as evoo). To be officially certified “extra virgin,” an olive oil must be first cold pressed. If it’s not first cold pressed, it can’t qualify as extra virgin olive oil under standards established by the International Olive Council or the California Olive Oil Council.
First cold pressed basically means the fruit of the olive was crushed exactly one time – i.e., the “first press.” The “cold” refers to the temperature range of the fruit at the time it’s crushed. If the temperature range is too high during the crushing process, the quality of the oil will suffer. Lower quality oils – those that aren’t extra virgin – typically are crushed multiple times and at higher temperatures to extract more oil from the fruit. The resulting oil is much lower in quality. Quality is important when it comes to olive oil.
Every oil breaks down when heated, but exactly when that process happens is determined by the oil’s smoke point. Smoke point is the temperature to which an oil can be heated before it smokes and discolors—indications of decomposition. At the smoke point, the oil can add unsavory flavors to your meal. It may also start to smell as you are cooking. Watch out for those particular signs as it means you are getting close to the flash point, which is when the oil can burst into flames.
As a rule, vegetable-based oils have higher smoke points than animal-based fats like butter or lard, with the exception of hydrogenated vegetable shortening (which has a lower smoke point than butter) and olive oil (which has a smoke point about equal to that of lard).
I use coconut oil for making pop corn the old fashioned way (much better than microwave popcorn by the way). It tastes great and doesn’t break down or discolor when heated to the point needed to pop the corn. As a saturated fat, coconut oil had a bad reputation. But research has proven that it is actually beneficial and contains some saturated fatty acids (like Capric Acid and Lauric Acid) that raise the level of high density lipoproteins in the body and lower bad cholesterol. Fatty acids are also believed to increase the rate of metabolism and thus help shed weight. Used topically, coconut oil is also good for skin and hair.
Hemp oil and flax seed oil are both great for your diet, as they are naturally high in essential fatty acids. I have to admit I don’t know what hemp oil tastes like, but as in many things hemp, it is said to be high quality yet controversial.
The best oils for deep frying and very high temperature cooking are refined safflower and sunflower oils, peanut, safflower and soy oils. Refined almond, avocado and cottonseed oil are also great if you can find and afford them, and canola (rapeseed) oil is usually OK as well. Safflower and avocado oils have about the highest smoke points of all oils, right around 475-500°F.
A simple way to try new oils is to make a vinaigrette. Mix three parts oil to one part vinegar (my sister uses half oil and half vinegar–try different proportions to find your favorite). The varieties of oils and vinegars are endless and you can add crushed garlic, sea salt, spices and / or lemon juice. Homemade vinaigrette is much better than what you get at the store minus the preservatives and chemicals in commercial brands. Another way I get healthy olive oil in my diet is to make a dip for bread. Start with a 1/2 cup of olive oil. Add two cloves of crushed garlic, 1 tsp. of crushed pepper, 1/2 tsp. of sea salt and 1 tblsp. of balsamic vinegar. I love rosemary bread for dipping, but in lieu of that add rosemary or other spices to the oil dip and enjoy.