Many cooks consider olive oil their go-to oil in the kitchen. But there are some things that even the best extra-virgin olive oil doesn’t do that well. (Cooking at high heat, for one; high temperatures destroy the delicate flavors of extra-virgin olive oils.)
There are tons of other great, under-used oils out there, for cooking or for accents in things like dressings, or both. These oils tend to be intensely flavored and fragrant, and add a big punch to dishes; a little bit goes a long way.
Choosing the right exotic oil requires that you know how you’re going to use it. Some nut oils, especially, have a high smoke point, so they work well for cooking at high heat. Other oils are better served without being heated, in dressings or marinades.
Almond: Extracted from almonds, almond oil has a nice nutty flavor, but isn’t as intense as almond paste or almond extract. It has a high smoke point, so you can use it at high heat.
Avocado: Somewhat reminiscent of olive oil, but tasting slightly of nuts and avocados. It’s a great choice for soups, pasta salads and salad dressing. Very high smoke point – 520 degrees! – so it’s also a good frying or sautéing oil. And it’s monounsaturated, so it’s considered a more heart-healthy oil.
Coconut: Pressed from coconut meat, this oil has a neutral flavor. It’s highly stable, and keeps a long time without going rancid, so it’s also a good choice for baking and for frying, as long as you don’t fry at higher temperatures.
Flaxseed: Made from the seeds of the flax plant, this oil has gained followers in the past few years for its possible health benefits. It contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have been linked to heart health. This isn’t a good cooking oil, as it has a low smoke point, but it’s a good choice for dips, salad dressings or other uses where the oil isn’t heated.
Grapeseed: This is a byproduct of the wine industry; just like the name implies, it’s extracted from grape seeds. It has a neutral flavor, so it can be substituted for lots of other oils.
Hazelnut: Roasted hazelnuts give this oil its delicate, nutty flavor and aroma. Just a little is all you need to stir into dressings or baked goods, or drizzle over fish or veggies.
Macadamia nut: Rich and buttery, just like the nut it comes from. It’s an interesting substitute for extra-virgin olive oil, and can be used in much the same manner.
Peanut: A great frying oil, especially popular in Asian and African-inspired dishes. It’s monounsaturated, so it’s more heart-healthy than some other oils.
Pumpkin seed: Pressed from roasted pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, this oil has a deeply nutty flavor, especially tasty as a salad dressing. It is often combined with olive oil or other more neutral oils when a large quantity of oil is called for in a recipe. Like a few other exotic oils, it’s rich in omega-3 and omega-6, the essential fatty acids linked to heart health.
Sesame: Light, neutral flavor and a relatively high smoke point, making it good for frying or sautéing. It also contains antioxidants, and lasts a long time without going rancid. Plain sesame oil is different from toasted sesame oil, which has a very intense flavor and is used as an accent on cooked dishes or in dressings/dips, especially Asian inspired dishes, and never used for cooking or frying.
Walnut oil: A rich, nutty oil that’s delicious as an ingredient in dressings, dips, salads or other uncooked dishes; it can turn slightly bitter when heated. Buy in smaller quantities if possible, as it is more perishable than many other oils, and you don’t need much of it to make a big impact.
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