How Many Types of Cooking Oil Do I Really Need?
Short answer: It depends on how you cook.
I am obsessed with olive oil. I love the taste… okay, the various tastes. Because olive oil is very much like wine, where it’s grown, how it’s grown, how and when it’s harvested, and how it’s processed all directly affect the flavor. Thus, there is a huge range of different flavors possible.
Of course, there are plenty of other oils I reach for besides olive. But does that mean you also need to keep more than one type of oil in your kitchen at all times? I’m afraid my answer is: most likely. But don’t worry, no one is trying to break the bank here.
The most important question you need to ask yourself when considering what cooking oils you should have is “What am I going to use the oil for?”
If your plan is to saute, then you have a few choices. A lot of people will tell you never to heat extra-virgin olive oil. I am not one of those people, simply because I love the flavor. So, ages ago, I tasted through various inexpensive extra-virgin olive oils, found one I loved, and now I keep that for cooking. Could you use “pure” olive oil for cooking? Yes. And, obviously, you can use a neutral tasting vegetable oil or corn oil for sauteing or roasting. Just remember, it will bring no flavor to the party.
Now, deep-frying is another matter entirely. When I muster up the courage to deep-fry, I reach for either peanut oil, or good old fashioned vegetable oil. Even I, a cook who uses EVOO for virtually everything else, wouldn’t use it to deep-fry. The “smoke point” is just too low for this cooking application, and burned EVOO is not something I’d wish on anyone.
OK, here's the tricky part; let's talk about finishing oils. Some wonderful artisanal extra-virgin olive oils are, to say the least, not inexpensive. And there are times when those sorts of luxury oils are just what you want. Salads, for example. When you have perfect fresh greens and beautiful soft herbs you’re tossing together for company, or a lovely meal in for yourself—that’s the time for the really good stuff. Or when you’ve simply grilled or roasted a piece of fish, chicken, or beef. This is where you break out the sharp peppery oil, or the lush soft buttery oil, whichever you’ve come to prefer. Or prefer at that particular moment in time. And there is only one way to know. You’ll need to taste some.
Now, as great EVOO does not have an indefinite shelf life, I would always recommend buying the really good stuff in small containers. And that will help as you start tasting various oils to determine your favorites. (Note: If you can find dark glass bottles, that will also help extend the shelf life of your oil.) Is it tempting to buy huge bottles? Yes. Just don’t give in, because the delicious flavor you’re paying for will not last as long as that gallon will.
There is also another whole world of fun oils that you can consider for salads or last minute drizzling: Nut oils. They are incredibly delicious, but relatively expensive and have a short shelf life. So if you splurge on some, be prepared to use them.
Overall, my recommendation for maintaining a well oiled kitchen is:
- Always keep a bottle of basic vegetable oil and/or affordable EVOO around for sauteing and roasting.
- Keep vegetable, peanut, or corn oil on hand if you ever deep-fry.
- Have a small amount of really flavorful EVOO and/or nut oils for salads and last-minute drizzling.
- Bonus indulgence: Get ahold of some real, imported Austrian Pumpkin Seed Oil… and drizzle it over vanilla ice cream. I know, sounds weird. But trust me. This is one of the world’s great treats.