The Skinny on... Unusual Oils

There's a world of incredible flavors just past that jug of olive oil.
The Skinny on Unusual OilsThe Skinny on Unusual Oils

All oils and fats are not created equal. Sure, almost all ring in at 1 PointsPlus™ value per teaspoon; but some add tons of flavor while others are tasteless, adding little to a dish. Why would anyone spend PointsPlus values without the boldest, brightest flavors imaginable?

Fancy Frites

Nothing beats French fries made with a flavorful, aromatic oil. There's no need to spend way too much money or use too much oil. We've discovered a countertop gadget called the T-Fal ActiFry that will fry up to 2 1/2 pounds of potatoes in only 1 tablespoon of oil in 30 to 40 minutes. It duplicates oven-frying without heating up the oven or using too much oil. Imagine French fries in olive oil — or even walnut oil! It's a great weeknight treat that lets us have our favorites and better choices, too.

First, let's nail down a definition or two. Technically, a fat comes from a bird or an animal: butter, chicken fat or lard, for example. By contrast, an oil comes from a plant or some part of a plant: olives, avocados, walnuts, rapeseeds (which make canola oil) and corn, to name a few. Fish oils, full of omega-3s, don't. However, because they're relatively stinky over the heat, we never cook with fish oils as we do with other oils or fats.

OK, so on to the kitchen! Don't be afraid of butter, olive oil or a host of other flavorful oils as the base for a sauté, a braise, a stew or even a roast. More flavor, more taste in every bite. What could be better? In a standard recipe, you'll add so much flavor that you can often cut the amount called for in half. Try butter at the base of a chicken stew, almond oil in chili and sesame oil in a stir-fry.

But flavorful oils are for more than just sautéing and frying. Finishing oils such as first cold-pressed olive oil or macadamia nut oil are tasty condiments. Since fat carries flavor, the gentle warmth of cooked food will release their intense aroma. Imagine a drizzle of that olive oil on some steamed green beans or a little of that nut oil on warm brown rice. Utter bliss.

You can even use a highly flavored finishing oil on a cold dish. Wash your hands in warm water and dry them thoroughly, then add some light, fragrant olive oil to a green salad or a pasta salad; toss it with your warm hands to volatilize the oil, releasing its delicate aroma. If you're making a dish that you can't easily toss with your hands, run some warm water over the bottle for a few minutes. It'll taste even better on those sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes.

Remember this rule of thumb: highly flavored oils are almost always perishable. Store them in the refrigerator for maximum shelf life and freshness. If they cloud up or become solid, leave them on the counter for 15 minutes before you use them.

Avocado oil

This light-green oil with a faint avocado flavor is one of the few flavorful oils that can be used for both cooking and finishing. It allows you to use high heat without giving up any of its flavor; it also makes a wonderful finish for grilled vegetables like fennel or eggplant.

Nut oils: Almond, hazelnut, pecan, pistachio and walnut

Nut oils come in two varieties: toasted and untoasted. Untoasted are best for sautéing and frying as well as substituting for less flavorful oils in cookie and cake batters. Toasted nut oils have a stronger flavor and are best as finishers: on grilled fish or veggies, for example. They also make a tasty addition to almost any salad dressing.

Olive oil

Olive oil has become a kitchen staple. But there is a big difference between a standard, sturdy olive oil meant for sautéing over relatively high heat and a more delicate one meant as a finishing condiment. The former can be bought in large, metal containers, an economical way to have lots of olive oil at home.

For more expensive finishing oils, look for words like "first cold-pressed" — which indicate a high-quality, fruit-laced oil, best for tossing in salads or drizzling over cooked food. Avoid "light" olive oil, a reference merely to the fact that the olives were pressed repeatedly, giving up less flavor each time; also avoid oils with the word "refined" on the label — these may have been produced with chemical solvents.

Peanut oil

This oil is the perfect fat to use when stir-frying or making curries. Unrefined oils have bits of peanuts in the mix and a more pronounced flavor but cannot be used for high-temperature frying. Look for these at Asian or Middle Eastern markets.

Pumpkin seed oil

This toasted oil is dark-green to black and should only be used as a condiment; drizzle onto bean dips and spreads or add just a few drops into a bowl of soup before serving.

Sesame oil

This oil comes in toasted and untoasted varieties. The untoasted version is best for roasting vegetables, while the toasted one should be used as a finishing oil over stir-fries or in salad dressings.

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