Let’s takes a step back from EVOO for a moment (so glad you made that a thing, Rachael Ray…) to talk about oils and which ones you might need, which ones you probably don’t, and why.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), and Slutty Neighborhood Bike Olive Oil
If you like making your own salad dressing (props, boo), hummus, or enjoy a good oil for dipping bread into (and who doesn’t?) then EVOO is probably what you want. Can you get away with using a different kind of oil for these things? Yes, but it will alter the flavor of what you’re making, and EVOO is typically called for in recipes where the flavor of the oil is as important as everything else. Tl;dr: EVOO is great when you aren’t cooking with it. This oil has a flavor, so put it in stuff where you really want to taste it.
Despite what Rachael would have you believe, EVOO is not good for cooking. Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a very low smoke point, which means it’s pretty much terrible (and terrible for you) when it comes to frying. You cannot make a good stir fry with olive oil, and you wouldn’t want to – EVOO typically isn’t cheap, so why waste it just to burn out all the good flavor and taint your food with free radicals?
So what’s the difference between Extra Virgin, Virgin, Pure, and Light olive oil? Extra virgin is the stuff you want to eat raw, or chug straight from the bottle. I’m not gonna judge you. I mean, I am, but I’ll be polite and do it silently.
The gist is that EVOO and Virgin Olive Oil have a lighter flavor than the other oils – which is generally a good thing when you plan to use it raw – it won’t overwhelm or “weigh down” the rest of the flavors in your dish. Which is another way of saying you’ll still be able to taste the tomatoes and basil in your bruschetta, not just olive oil. Unless you have a pretentiously refined palate, you probably won’t taste the difference between the two of these oils. So save a few bucks and opt for the Virgin, especially if you’re still finding your way around the kitchen.
Pure olive oil is a blend of refined and virgin olive oils. So it’s still technically all olive oil, but that’s pretty much where the purity ends.
Light/Refined olive oil has a very high smoke point, higher than other olive oils, and higher than a lot of other cooking oils as well. That makes it good for baking and sautéing if you’re really keen on using olive oil.
Ok, so you have your coconut oil, which is apparently a panacea wonder-food if Pinterest is to be believed, your sesame oil, duck fat, schmaltz, and lard. For most of you, everything I just said is confusing and terrifying if I know my target audience. But fear not, neophytes, I’m here to help.
Coconut oil has the same smoke point as butter, which is to say, a pretty low one. Use it in place of butter if you have a dairy intolerance, but stick with oils that have a higher smoke point for frying. It also has a pretty distinctive coconut flavor, though mild. If you aren’t a big coconut fan, this is not the oil for you. And, unlike EVOO, this oil has a much higher melting point, which means that unless the temperature 76°F or higher, your coconut oil will be solid, so its raw uses are limited.
Smoke point aside, you don’t want to use this for frying. Sesame oil has an incredibly strong flavor, which makes it a great addition to asian recipes in very small quantities. Too much, and you will easily overpower your dish. Also, sesame oil typically comes in tiny, overpriced bottles. So you’d go broke trying to make french fries.
Or as I like to call it, “Foodie Lube,” duck fat is apparently fucking delicious, a food revelation, and the only way to get your potatoes truly, righteously crispy in the oven. Apparently foie gras was still one step too removed from pure duck fat, so now this is the big thing. Go ahead, buy your duck fat if you must. But don’t come crying to me when you’ve used it only once (to make potatoes in the oven), and the jar has gone rancid.
Schmaltz is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a Jewish thing. More specifically, for my gentile readers, schmaltz is rendered chicken/goose fat. It’s a big deal back in Europe, but it’s certainly a thing in parts of the US as well. If you already know what Schamltz is, and you feel strongly about it, go ask your grandma to make you some. She’ll be delighted you called. If you already know how to make it, you definitely do not need this blog. Well, maybe you do. But probably not.
Oh happy day! Lard is seeing a huge resurgence, and it’s way better tasting and healthier for you than fuckin’ Crisco. Nevertheless, if you’re cooking with either on the regular, you probably aren’t reading my blog for the diet tips.
Lard has a decently high smoke point and is super versatile – you can substitute it for butter (hear that, non-dairy eaters? Oh right, y’all are probably fucking vegan), use it to make amazing pie crusts, and impart some of that crispiness without the whole commitment to a jar of duck fat.
But, it’s tough to come by, though I am seeing tubs of it at my local store. Most recipes call for oil or butter, and a lot of us find butter flavor more palatable (though lard does not have a particularly strong flavor).
If you make a lot of pastry or do a lot of traditional cooking, lard is probably an excellent option to consider. If your pastry and traditional cooking is less frequent, butter or oils will do just fine.
I know someone’s gonna comment and be like, “but what about avocado oil, it’s great!” And I’m going to be like, “you know what? Get out.” So before that happens, let’s talk about all the other fucking oils I didn’t mention, but which otherwise belong in this category. If you feel strongly about your fucking grapeseed oil, knock yourself out and use that. But I’m telling you, you’re just as well off with vegetable oil.
The Oils you will actually use more than once
Canola, vegetable, sunflower and safflower oils all have smoke points of 400°F and up (with safflower having the highest at 510°F). You don’t need all of these, and they’re usually all pretty interchangeable. Pick one you find inoffensive, and put it in your pantry.