Choosing the Best Oils for Cooking
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
If you were to eat a well-balanced diet, and never added a drop of oil to your food, you’d probably still manage to get the fat your body needs. And while it’s generally a good idea to control how much fat you eat, there are those times when you need to use a little oil when you’re preparing a meal. With so many different oils to choose from, how do you decide which one to use?
Calories are a consideration, only because fats are the most concentrated source of calories of anything we eat, so it’s wise to use them sparingly. But there are no calorie differences among oils; they all run about 130 calories per tablespoon. There’s no such thing as “light” oil, at least in terms of calories. “Light” olive oil is called light because it has a milder flavor, but the same amount of calories as the stronger-tasting regular version. So how healthy the fats are for you, and the flavors they impart to dishes, are really the more important factors when deciding which oil to use.
Many vegetable oils are nearly flavorless, so they won’t compete with any other flavors and seasonings in your finished dish. Among the mild-tasting oils, canola is usually considered to be one of the healthiest, since it has the least amount of saturated fat.
But highly flavored oils like sesame, almond or walnut can add spectacular flavor with just a few drops, so you can use much less of them and save calories along the way. A little bit of walnut or almond oil adds a wonderful flavor to salads and a few drops of sesame oil adds a nice flavor to a plain chicken soup. Olive oil is a bit more versatile since its flavor can range from mild to strong and peppery, so you can choose which one works best for your particular dish. Olive oil is widely recommended as one of the best all-around oils, since it contains the most heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. That, coupled with its delicious flavor, has made extra virgin olive oil more popular than ever.
The only other thing to consider is how much heat you’ll be using. Oils vary in terms of how much heat they can take before they start to smoke. Canola oil, for example, can take more heat than olive, so if you’re sautéing, you’ll want to keep a close eye on the flame as you cook.
Once you’ve mixed and matched your flavors, keep in mind that you can often reduce the amount of oil in a recipe to a minimum without much effect on the finished product. And, when a recipe says to saute in oil, you don’t necessarily need to. You can saute in water, wine, broth or juice, and then add a few drops of highly flavored oil when you’re finished. That way, you’ll get all the taste without a lot of extra calories.