Beyond the EVOO

The bewildering array of oils at Central Market.
The bewildering array of oils at Central Market.

There is one isle in Central Market that mystifies me more than any other: the oil aisle. I mean, how many types of oil does one need? As an avid Food Network watcher, it seems I've fallen under the Rachael Ray curse of cooking only with EVOO. Yes, I just called it that, and yes, I am ashamed. After reading the labels on the specialty oils that explain things like smoke point, I realized I was probably doing things wrong. Since that experience, I've educated myself about the different types of oils out there, what each is best used for, and what the hell a safflower is.

First up is oil best used for frying, which includes peanut, sesame and, strangely enough, avocado oil. All of these oils have high smoke points, meaning that they can handle the high temperatures of this cooking method without burning and giving food an acrid taste. I've heard many perfect batches of fried chicken result from peanut oil, but if you're able to splurge, try avocado oil for an unobtrusive buttery taste and a healthy punch.

Sautéing oils are easy, as this includes the majority of them, from traditional (light or virgin) olive and canola to the slightly more exotic sesame, grapeseed and sunflower oils. High oleic safflower oil is said to be one of the best oils for sautéing due to its ideal smoke point and near tastelessness. Apparently, a safflower is a thistle-like plant with yellow, orange or red flowers related to the sunflower. When made into oil, it is like the overachieving younger sibling to sunflower oil, providing many health benefits and a cleaner flavor base.

If you're a fan of Rachael Ray's many shows, you might turn your nose up at these other oils, thinking EVOO is a jack-of-all-trades when really it's just an attention whore. Extra virgin olive oil actually has a relatively low smoke point and a delicate flavor that heat quickly breaks down, rendering it not ideal for cooking. To get more bang for your buck, keep the extra virgin stuff for dressings, marinades and for finishing dishes and stick with canola, safflower, virgin olive and the like for cooking. Other oils that work best unheated are flax, toasted sesame, hazelnut, walnut and truffle.

For other ways to use more interesting oils, try baking with coconut oil or making your own flavored oil. And check out these uses for specialty oils.

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