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Cooking Oil 101: Elevate your cooking game with this liquid gold

Posted: Dec 20, 2023 9 minute read GAR 0 Likes

The sizzle of vegetables hitting a hot, glistening pan, the golden sheen of a perfect fried chicken, and the sumptuous, moist crumb of a freshly baked cake. What do these culinary wonders have in common? They’re not just a reflection of the chef’s skills but also feature the unsung hero of the kitchen – cooking oil. This unassuming liquid gold isn’t just for greasing the pan; it’s the secret behind transforming ordinary ingredients into extraordinary dishes.

Delve into different types, creative uses, and pros/cons of cooking oils.

Why do we need oil when cooking?

You might have wondered, “Why not cook without oil?”. The truth is that oil is the key to many chemical reactions in cooking.

The science behind this is rooted in oil’s ability to withstand high temperatures without smoking. When heated, oil can reach higher temperatures than water at much faster speeds. With high-heat cooking methods like frying and sautéing, the oil increases the surface area of the food in contact with the heat and shields the food from direct exposure to the pan. This ensures that the food cooks evenly and effectively without burning.

Did you know?

The smoke point of a cooking oil is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and produce visible smoke. When an oil reaches its smoke point, it can impart unpleasant flavours and potentially harmful compounds to the food you’re cooking. You also lose the oil’s health benefits when the high temperature breaks down the fatty acids.

Different oils have varying smoke points, hence it’s important to choose the best cooking oil based on the cooking method you plan to use.

This ability of oil to take the heat is the secret sauce behind those amazing textures and flavours we associate with fried dishes. At high temperatures, oil contributes to the rapid evaporation of moisture from the food’s surface and, subsequently the formation of a protective crust to reduce moisture loss from the inner layers of the food. This means that oil can dehydrate the outer layer of the food, giving fried foods that irresistible crispy exterior and perfectly cooked interior, like in French fries, fried chicken, or tempura.

Oil & Texture

Cooking oil is the key to creating a crispy texture in high heat situations. At the same time, in low to no heat applications, like in sauces and dressings, oil contributes to a smooth, velvety mouthfeel.

Oil’s hydrophobic (water-repelling) nature is another reason why it’s a kitchen essential. It can fill in microscopic surface imperfections, like those on pans, to create a non-stick barrier by repelling moisture and other substances.

Oils also play a vital role in creating flavour. Fats hold a treasure trove of flavour molecules, each imparting a unique character to the cooking oil. Think about olive oil with its grassy, citrusy, and nutty notes or the rich and creamy allure of butter, with its hints of nuttiness and a touch of funk. When you bring these fats into your culinary creations, you add a whole new dimension of taste.

Furthermore, as fats warm up, chain-like molecules, known as fatty acids, interact with oxygen atoms. This process leads to the breakdown of these chains, unveiling entirely new flavour compounds that were once locked away within the fat.

Since fat is such a good conductor of heat it also creates flavours in other foods. It helps food reach high enough temperatures for flavour generating chemical reactions such as caramelisation (at around 170 degree Celsius) and the Maillard reaction (starts around 140 degree Celsius).

Besides being chock-full of flavour molecules, oils are excellent flavour carriers. They can dissolve and transport fat-soluble flavour compounds, such as the essential oils in herbs and spices. When heated, the fats in the oil release these aromatic compounds into the food, enhancing its flavour.

The Maillard reaction

is a chemical reaction that occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars in food when exposed to high heat. Oils facilitate this browning process and usher in new, complex flavours within the fat itself and the ingredients it envelops. This reaction is responsible for the delicious taste and aroma of grilled steak, toasted bread, and roasted coffee.

The magic of oil extends to the way it delivers flavour to our palates. Water and oil don’t mix well, and our saliva is mainly water, which struggles to cleanse fatty foods from our mouth effectively. This means that the flavour from fatty foods sticks around longer on our taste buds, making every bite more enjoyable.

How is cooking oil used?

Cooking oil is a versatile ally in the kitchen, capable of much more than just frying. Here are some of its many applications:

1. Frying

Perhaps one of the most common uses of cooking oil is frying – transforming ordinary ingredients into delicious, crispy delights. High-smoke point oils like palm oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and peanut oil are ideal for deep-frying, as they can reach the high temperatures required to create that perfect outer crust while retaining the moisture inside.

Did You Know?

The negative connotations associated with the term ‘fat’ often lead us to underestimate its vital role in a healthy diet. World Health Organisation (WHO) outlines recommended daily fat intake of 20-30 percent of total daily calorie consumption.

Cooking oils contain both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, including essential Omega-3 and Omega-6, two fatty acids that our bodies cannot naturally produce and must obtain from our diet.

2. Baking

Cooking oils from plant sources can serve as healthier alternatives to butter in baking. Vegetable oils like canola and olive oil can replace butter in various recipes, resulting in moist, tender baked goods with lower saturated fat content.

3. Sautéing and Stir-Frying

Oil is an indispensable ingredient when it comes to sautéing and stir-frying. It ensures that your ingredients cook evenly, preventing them from sticking to the pan. Oils with a moderate smoke point, like olive oil, are commonly used for these techniques, imparting a delicate flavour to the dish.

4. Roasting and Grilling

When roasting vegetables or meats, a light coating of cooking oil helps to achieve that coveted golden-brown exterior. It enhances the caramelisation process, adding a layer of flavour and an appealing texture to your dishes. They also prevent the food from sticking to the grates and contribute to that classic grilled flavour.

5. Marinades

Cooking oils, especially those infused with herbs and spices, are often used as a marinade base. These oils help to tenderise meat, infuse it with flavours, and prepare it for grilling or roasting.

6. Sauces and Dressings

Cooking oils are essential in creating creamy sauces like mayonnaise and salad dressings. They serve as a base, enabling the blending of ingredients that might not naturally combine and resulting in a smooth and luscious texture.

Exploring cooking oils: types, characteristics, and applications

Cooking oils come in diverse types, each with its own characteristics and applications. They are commonly classified into two categories: vegetable and non-vegetable. Read through this table to explore cooking oil types, characteristics, and applications.

Vegetable Oils Non-Vegetable Oils
Sources Extracted from vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, and cereal grains Sourced from animal products or other non-plant sources
Common Examples Canola/rapeseed oil, olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oil Lard (pork fat), tallow (beef or sheep fat), duck fat
Flavour and Aroma Vegetable oils can have a wide range of flavours and aromas, which can be an advantage in cooking for diverse culinary profiles.
Some vegetable oils are neutral in flavour, making them the best choice for recipes that focus less on the taste of the oil
Non-vegetable oils often have unique, savoury flavours.
Smoke Point Varying smoke points that cater to different cooking methods, both no-heat (such as salad dressings and sauces) and heat methods (such as frying, sautéing, roasting, etc.) Usually, high smoke points well-suited for high-heat applications.
Dietary Considerations Preferred by vegetarians and vegans It may not be suitable for vegetarians and vegans
Culinary Applications Versatile and suitable for a wide range of cooking applications, from frying and baking to salad dressings and sautéing Chosen for specific culinary applications where their unique flavours and properties can enhance the dish. For example, gravy, mashed potatoes, steaks, seafood dishes, etc.

Differences between vegetable and non-vegetable oils

Due to their remarkable versatility and unique capability to enhance flavours and textures in a wide range of dishes, vegetable oils are often the go-to option for both professional chefs and home cooks. Explore these commonly-used vegetable oils to understand their optimal uses, smoke points, and unique characteristics.

Palm oil Canola/Rapeseed Oil Olive Oil Coconut Oil Avocado Oil
Smoke Point 235°C 220-230°C 199-243°C 232°C 270°C
Flavour and Texture Neutral Neutral Grassy/tropical Bland with coconut aroma Buttery
Colour Bright yellow Light yellow Green or yellow Clear/transparent Jade green
Best Use Deep frying, sautéing, grilling Frying, sautéing, baking Sautéing, pan-frying, salad dressings, baking Baking, low-heat roasting, sautéing Searing, sautéing, roasting, grilling, dressings

Best uses, characteristics, and applications of top commonly-used cooking oils1

Palm cooking oil: Shaping global food cultures

Beyond a mere kitchen essential, palm cooking oil has left its mark on the history, agriculture, and even the economic trends of regions across the globe. It is also a staple in the culinary traditions of Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, playing a key role in shaping the flavours, textures, and nutritional profiles of both classic and contemporary dishes.

In Southeast Asia, especially in leading producer nations Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil is deeply ingrained in the food culture. The oil’s versatility and high smoke point make it a favourite for frying and preparing an array of regional dishes, from the street-side vendor frying up a storm of crispy gorengan (fritters) to the home cook preparing sumptuous curry that simmers in the rich, reddish oil. It not only contributes to the region’s distinctive flavours but also supports the livelihoods of millions of farmers and workers in the agricultural sector.

In Africa, palm oil holds a place of similar importance. The oil palm is native to West Africa, and the oil extracted from its fruit has been used for cooking for thousands of years. It is a staple in many African kitchens, where its distinctive flavour and colour are integral to traditional dishes. In Nigeria, for example, palm oil is the heart of the iconic jollof rice, giving it not only rich taste but also its characteristic hue. The oil isn’t just a cooking medium; it’s also a source of nutrition in many communities, providing essential fats and vitamins.

In South America, palm oil’s integration into the food culture is more recent compared to Southeast Asia and Africa, but its impact is steadily growing. In Brazil, palm oil (locally known as dendê oil) is essential in Bahian cuisine, where it’s used to prepare acarajé and vatapá, offering a rich flavor and golden color. The cultivation of oil palm in South America also reflects a growing emphasis on biodiesel production, though its culinary use remains prominent.

Here are some renowned dishes from across the globe that feature palm oil.

Famous dishes with palm cooking oil across the world

As a longstanding kitchen staple, cooking oil offers a taste of its origins – a reflection of the regions and traditions it hails from. It carries the stories of trade, migration, and innovation. Recognising that the oil in our kitchens not only enriches flavour but is also part of the broad fabric of worldwide gastronomic history adds a unique depth to our dining experiences.



Looking to explore recipes with palm cooking oil? Discover a variety of palm-based dishes here, from banana muffins to Rendang danishes.


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