My daughter Arabella is five months and is almost ready to begin eating solids (despite detesting her first taste of banana) – two teeth are here already. Reading a cookbook about baby food and nutrition prompted me to write this post. A recipe in that book wants me to use olive oil for sautéing vegetables to be made into a puree. In fact with the craze for extra virgin olive oil these days people often cook with it … even on TV “EVOO” … and well, they really should not. At least it depends how much heat you apply to your particular cooking.
(Austrian pupmpkin seed oil with Spring salad and Tilsiter cheese, watermelon and baby beets)
All About the Smoke
It comes down to this: you should never reach the smoking point of an oil when you cook -- not only is there a danger that the oil can ignite but it’s also bad for your health.
Yes, you can cook with olive, walnut, pumpkin seed and other oils as long as your skillet or vessel stays on a low heat setting throughout. I call these types of oils low to medium heat cooking oils and they are generally good up to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. But I prefer to use them as finishing oils meaning I might drizzle them over foods such as soups or raw fish dishes. Because really who wants to be concerned about the smoking point of these oils as you prepare your dinner, possibly with other courses to tend to. And most people are a little impatient and turn up that heat to brown that garlic!
(I love this - baguette drizzled with argan oil then dipped in melted chocolate with a sprinkling of sea salt)
For the Hot and Impatient
So, for your pan roasted seafood or meat I suggest to cook with more heat stable oils such as canola or grape seed which are good all around oils for cooking and are heat stable up to about 450 degrees Fahrenheit. For frying I prefer to use corn oil, peanut oil or sunflower oil. Now if you want to go crazy with the heat avocado oil is for you as remains stable up to over 500°F, but you might not be able to afford it (or want to afford it) – it’s expensive! Sesame oil is also a noteworthy heat stable oil and it imparts distinct flavors in Asian cuisine (when it’s not toasted). The oils I mentioned thus far are all either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats which are considered “good fats.” The “bad fats” are on the other side of the fence; they are saturated and raise blood cholesterol levels to an unhealthy extent, and there are trans fats which are in many packaged foods and baked items such as doughnuts. Trans fats have gotten some play in the media recently as NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg made a pet project of attempting to ban them in fast food restaurants here in NY and many commercial products are now marketing “no trans fats” on their packaging. Margarine is one of the most notorious of these trans fats ironically thought to be better than butter (which is saturated but is not a trans fat) and is quite the opposite.
(Olive oil poached jumbo sea bass with smoked olive oil)
Greasy Tips and Pitfalls:
O If oils have a pale color and are bland in taste they are usually refined meaning chemically bleached and deodorized.
O In my kitchen I use canola oil plentiful (also known as rapeseed oil) on the hot line. It has good heat retention and it’s flavor neutral. I even use it in salad vinaigrettes next to olive oil where it imparts subtle richness.
O When frying, you can measure the temperature of your oil with a thermometer but there is a simpler old trick -- drop a small piece of bread into it and see how fast it browns. This will give you a good indication of what it will to do your food.
O Overheated oils will start to smoke and eventually -- if really hot – will ignite. DO NOT try to extinguish this oil with water, instead you must suffocate the flame with flour or baking powder or simply put a lid on the pot.
So either I’ll be steaming the peas for Arabella’s puree or I’ll use a heat stable oil and leave the fire extinguisher on the hook!
(my daughter Arabella & Mini inspecting the label of an olive oil bottle)