July 23--Oil has been a cooking staple for centuries, but surely it's never been
so complicated to choose which one to use.
Shelves that used to hold a couple of kinds of vegetable oil have been expanded
to include alternatives made from coconut, rice bran and lots of seeds: grape,
flax and hemp. Nuts have been pressed into service, too: walnuts, almonds and
Recipes included with this story: Melon Salad, Oregon Mixed Grill, Seared
Albacore Tuna Loin, No-cook "Coconut Butter" Fudge.
Remember when olive oil was the alternative choice?
Butter used to rule in the kitchen, and for some cooks it still does. Melted on
a New York strip steak or drizzled over perfectly steamed broccoli, it imparts a
luxurious flavor that seems almost sinful in this heart-healthy age. But
attitudes are changing, opening up cooks and diners to a world that glistens
with, but doesn't drown in, oil.
"Oils are happening right now," says David McIntyre of Whole Foods, who oversees
prepared food in the chain's Pacific Northwest stores. Health concerns, flavor
and functionality play a role in customers' choices, he says.
"People are over 'Fat is bad for you,'" says Rachel Berman, a registered
dietitian who's written "The Mediterranean Diet for Dummies," due out in August.
"In the '90s, it was 'low fat this' and 'low fat that,'" she says. "Oil is fat,
and people were hesitant to use it."
But those days are over. New research points to the contributions of some oils
to good health -- hence, the Mediterranean diet. Heavy on fruits, vegetables,
whole grains and fish, the Mediterranean diet emphasizes olive oil over butter
and fatty foods.
Olive oil is rich in antioxidants and contains mostly monounsaturated fats that
can help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL, often described as "bad")
cholesterol and elevate high-density lipoprotein (HDL or "good") cholesterol.
A study published earlier this year on The New England Journal of Medicine's
website found that following the Mediterranean diet may prevent about 30 percent
of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease.
Health claims have been made for coconut oil, too, despite the fact that it
contains mostly saturated fats. Proponents say it boosts metabolism, helps in
weight loss, supports the immune system and thyroid function and is rich in
antioxidants. But significant studies are lacking. Coconut oil may increase HDL
levels, but it may also increase LDL levels. The American Heart Association says
coconut oil is like other saturated fats and should be limited to less than 7
percent of your total daily calories.
Grapeseed oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids. Walnut oil is laced with omega-3s.
Rice bran oil is awash with vitamin E. Avocado oil is loaded with beta carotene
and vitamins A, D and E. Every oil seems to have its advocates, and cooks aren't
waiting for hard-science verdicts to try an alternative.
Matt Kuerbis, executive chef at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in
Portland, puts purpose at the top of his list when choosing an oil: Are you
going to use it for cooking or serve it at room temperature, he asks himself and
"Coconut and palm oil are good for cooking," he says. "They have higher smoke
points and their integrity stays intact. Flaxseed oil and walnut oil? Don't heat
them. Use them for salads. They have nice flavors."
An oil's smoke point is exactly that: the temperature at which it will begin to
smoke. That temperature may vary, depending on the kind of oil and how old it
may be. When an oil reaches its smoke point, its structure breaks down; it
oxidizes and may release toxic compounds that alter its taste -- for good or
Unrefined walnut oil, for example, has a smoke point of about 320 degrees and is
best used uncooked. Coconut oil, on the other hand, has a higher smoke point,
about 350 degrees, and is a good alternative for a quick saute. Grapeseed oil,
with a smoke point of about 485 degrees, and rice bran oil, 490 degrees, are
good for frying.
Aside from smoke point, flavor is another consideration. Coconut oil may or may
not taste like coconuts, McIntyre says. Virgin coconut oil has a stronger
flavor; refined coconut oil doesn't.
"If you want some of that coconut flavor in the dish, maybe Caribbean or Thai
shrimp, gently saute them in a little virgin coconut oil," McIntyre says. "The
coconut oil adds a ton of flavor."
Flavored oils present some challenges of their own, says Josh Blythe, associate
program director and lead instructor at the Oregon Culinary Institute in
Portland. He likes olive oil pressed with citrus skins -- lemons or oranges --
as a finishing drizzle on fish or vegetables and in vinaigrettes.
Just think about the combination of flavors you'll end up with, he says. He
recommends two essential guidebooks: "Culinary Artistry" and "The Flavor Bible"
for suggestions on the best combinations of flavored oils and other ingredients
(see accompanying suggestions).
Karen Seibert, lead nutritionist for New Seasons Market, says it's not all that
surprising that there are so many oils to choose from these days.
"We have a huge selection of everything," she says. "Ice cream, for example. It
But thanks to what she thinks of as nutritional "myth-busting," alternative oils
are getting a lot of attention. Coconut oil also is popular with bakers, she
says, who see it as a vegan substitute for butter. She uses it in zucchini bread
and carrot cake, and suggests substituting it for half the butter in cookie
But oil, whether it's coconut or canola, should be used sparingly, experts say.
Oils are not created equal, and some do claim health benefits.
But all are made of fat -- about 120 calories per tablespoon. Too much --
especially when combined with sugar and flour -- can be a diet buster, Seibert
-- Nancy Haught
Cooking oil tips
Five tips for storing and using cooking oil:
--Store oil in a dark bottle and a closed cupboard. Exposure to sunlight may
change the oil's flavor.
--Some cooks refrigerate oils to extend their shelf life and then let them come
to room temperature before using.
--Most oils don't keep forever. Cooks Illustrated says most unopened oils keep
for a year; three months if they've been opened.
--Buy oil in small quantities. It's not a bargain to buy a giant bottle of
extra-virgin olive oil, even on sale, if you won't use it before it becomes
--Most cooks need at least two oils on hand: a neutral oil (canola, vegetable or
grapeseed oil) for cooking, and one oil with good flavor, (extra-virgin olive
oil or one made from nuts), for finishing a dish or making vinaigrettes.
-- Nancy Haught
(c)2013 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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