Oil: A Slippery Slope

Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

Dietary fat often gets a bad rap. But the human body needs small amounts of fat, found in dietary oils, to insulate organs, regulate temperature and is the preferred source of energy for muscles at rest. Some unsaturated dietary oils have a heart-protective effect.

Omega-6 fatty acids, found in soybean oil, canola oil, nut oils, such as walnut oil and grapeseed oil, may actually contribute to heart health. Vitamin E is found in vegetable oils, such as sunflower, canola, olive oils, avocado, nuts, seeds, wheat germ and olives. This is a good thing, as vitamin E has strong antioxidant properties and may help to protect against heart diseases and cancer.

Unsaturated fats, found only in plant products, such as canola, sesame, soy or corn oils, are liquid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats are easier for the body to break down and so do not contribute so intensely to heart disease. Saturated fats, found largely in animal products, are solid at room temperature.

Select the best oils to maximize the minimum amounts used. Many chefs are working with olive, hazelnut, walnut, avocado, grapeseed and sesame and other specialty oils to incorporate more unsaturated oils into their recipes and menus. Each oil has its own flavor, color and cooking properties, leading interest to foods without including saturated fats. If you have the time, purchase small bottles of interesting-looking or sounding-oils and have a tasting. Dip a small piece of toast in a very small amount of oil and envision what type of food would be best suited to it.

A chef’s secret is to select the most flavorful oil for the food being served. Small amounts of flavorful oil taste better than larger amounts of boring oil. Another chef secret, when cooking in oil, is to use oil sparingly and to get the oil as hot as possible. The hotter the oil, the less oil is absorbed. Sautéing and stir-frying can be healthy cooking techniques and still use oil.

Spray oils are convenient to use and help to reduce the amount of fat used in cooking. Frying pans and skillets, cookie sheets and baking pans, grills and utensils can be sprayed with oil to reduce sticking and to give a hint of oil. There are spray oils with different flavors to sample and select.

Perhaps you’ll choose an olive oil spray for grilling asparagus or carrots, butter-flavored oil spray for steamed rice or oven-roasted potatoes, or rosemary-flavored oil spray for roasting herbed chicken.

 If you can’t find quite the flavor you’d like in a cooking or salad oil, create your own! You’ll need neutral-flavored oils, such as canola, extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed, sterilized glass jar or bottles that can be closed or sealed to be airtight, and a selection of dried herbs and spices. Avoid fresh ingredients, such as fresh rosemary, sage or garlic, as fresh items may add bacteria to the brew.

To flavor oils, mix three tablespoons of ground spices with one tablespoon of water and combine to form a smooth paste. You can purchase spices whole, and grind them in a coffee or spice grinder, or purchase them already ground. Place spice paste in the bottom of a sterilized glass jar or bottle, cover with two cups of oil, cover tightly and store in a cool, dry place for about two days. You can shake the container several times per day to ensure the flavor permeates the entire jar.

When the spice paste has settled to the bottom of the container, carefully pour off the flavored oil, pour into a second sterilized container, cover tightly, and store in a cool, dry place. Don’t leave the spice paste in with the oil, as the flavor can become too intense and even bitter.

Olive Oil

There is no such thing as miracle oil, an oil you can use as much as you want as often as you want. However, olive oil is very monounsaturated and, with restraint, can be part of a heart-healthy menu. There are several types or grades of olive oil available on the market. Do a tasting and select the type you enjoy the most, remembering that cost is not necessarily a factor for taste.

 Extra virgin olive oil means the olives are hand- picked from the top of the crop and cold- pressed, that is, squeezed without heating. The freshly pressed oil is checked for aroma, taste and color. The best of the batch is called “extra virgin olive oil” and the remainder is “virgin olive oil.”

The next grade down is” pure” olive oil, made from Grade B olives. These olives may have had a solvent, such as hexane, added to coax more oil out of the olives, which is then heated, to remove the solvent, toxic at low levels. Pure olive oil can be pale and bland. If it is too bland, it may be blended with a bit of extra virgin, to perk it up.

“Light” olive oil has nothing to do with calories. The “light” in this case has to do with color and flavor, used as a marketing tool. Olive oil is delicate, and to be honest, a lot of flavor is lost in heating. Be sure to store it away from heat or light. If you refrigerate olive oil, it can become cloudy and thick.

Sunflower Oil

Sunflowers are one of America’s quiet plant heroes. Way back when wild sunflowers covered thousands of square miles of land in the western United States. The sunflower ranks second among all seed crops in the world as an important source of edible vegetable oil. Sunflower oil is very high in polyunsaturated fats, so your nutritionist will approve.

Use sunflower oil as a toss with fresh tomatoes and basil or mixed green salads, as a marinade for poultry or lightly flavored seafood, such as shrimp, crab or red snapper, or as a base for salad dressings.

Sesame Oil

Sesame oil is assertive oil. Sesame oil stands out in dishes, so plan for sesame-flavored menus. Sesame oil can be used in robust salad dressings, such as those that include garlic or strong, ripened cheeses, in stir-frys, to add to the flavor of mild chicken or noodles, and as a marinade for hearty-flavored foods, such as lamb or swordfish. Be careful about using a high heat, as sesame oil’s strong flavor becomes unpleasant flavor heated for too long.

Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed oil is specialty oil with a brusque, tart, earthy flavor. Grapeseed is thought to contain anthocyanins, naturally occurring plant chemicals that help your body to fight off certain diseases. Grape seed oil is very unsaturated and is considered to be”healthy” oil. Grapeseed oil goes well on salads and in marinades. Drizzle a little grapeseed oil with some balsamic vinegar to create a fast, flavorful vinaigrette

Nut Oils

Nut oils, such as walnut, hazelnut or almond, are a real indulgence. They are usually expensive, and spoil quite quickly. Avoid nut oils that look cloudy on the shelf or are dark in color.

Perfumy walnut oil is great in green salads, especially when contrasted with bleu cheese or other soft, strong cheeses.

Almond oil adds an exotic touch to baking mixes or tossed with a fruit salad. If there is a baker in the house, sprinkle some almond oil over freshly baked cookies, cake or Danish to create a new flavor.

Hazelnut oil, the most expensive, is great for toasting rice or orzo for pilafs and for tossing with delicate green salads.

Nut oils do not hold up well to heat, so add them at the end of cooking, and never use with intense heat, as in frying or stir-frying.

Select the dietary oil you enjoy, use some portion control and whip up some amazing menus!


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