Cooking Oil Essentials

Smoke points are real and they really matter. Here’s what you need to know to choose the right oil for a given recipe.

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Learn how to make delicious creamy avocado pesto pasta.
Creamy avocado pesto pasta

If you’ve ever watched a cooking show, you know well that chefs cook often with extra-virgin olive oil. This is not surprising, since it has a mild, pleasant flavor and a wide variety of culinary uses, and is readily available. Here’s the thing, though – extra-virgin olive oil is great, but it isn’t the ideal choice in every recipe.

When cooking, you want to consider an oil’s flavor as well as its smoke point. The smoke point is the temperature where the oil starts breaking down – evidenced by smoking – and begins imparting a burned flavor to the food. In addition to this unpleasant taste, the overheating destroys beneficial phytonutrients found in the oil.

And while your pantry doesn’t necessarily need to be stocked with a dozen options, you can certainly benefit from having at least two or three types of oil on hand for different purposes.

When matching cooking oils to applications, here are a few reference points and guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Essential cooking oils to have in the kitchen. Cooking oils have a smoke point where it loses beneficial phytonutrients and will impart a burned taste to food.
    Essential Cooking Oils for your Kitchen

    Low-or no-heat cooking: Consider extra-virgin olive oil or unrefined safflower oil.

  • Sautéing and stir-frying: In medium-heat scenarios, choose refined* olive, sesame, coconut or grapeseed oil. Sesame’s nutty flavor is great for salad dressing and Asian dishes. Grapeseed’s smoke point is on the higher end of medium, at 375° to 400° F.
  • Broiling, grilling and roasting: Try soybean, peanut or safflower oil for high-heat needs. Avocado oil, although pricier, is another good option as it offers one of the highest smoke points – 450° to 500° F, depending on how it is processed.

* Note that refined oils can withstand higher heat and will generally have a more neutral flavor.

If I was going to keep only one type in my pantry, it would be grapeseed oil. It has a light flavor and can withstand fairly high heat. It’s also inexpensive. My other two must haves are Olive Oil and Coconut Oil.

I like to use grapeseed oil to make a simple and delicious dish:

Creamy Avocado Pesto Pasta

Ingredients

  • 1 avocado, pitted and chunked
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
  • juice of 1/2 lemon (reserve 2 teaspoons)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons hemp seeds, divided
  • Sea salt
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
  • 3-4 cups mixed baby greens
  • 4 servings of spaghetti noodles, cooked al dente
  • Crumbled feta cheese

Preparation

First, make the creamy avocado pesto sauce by combing avocado, basil leaves, lemon juice, garlic, hemp seeds, sea salt (to taste) and 1/4 cup grapeseed oil in a blender or food processor. Add oil slowly in a steady stream until desired texture is achieved. Next, sauté baby greens in 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil on medium heat in a deep skillet or pan. Add the cooked pasta and pesto sauce and toss or stir to combine. Sprinkle with feta, remaining hemp seeds and reserved lemon juice. Remove from heat and serve.

Olive oil being poured in the kitchen.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil