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What different varieties of oil are really needed in a decent home kitchen?

I ask because I've only two right now (olive & sunflower) that I try to use "correctly" but sometimes use interchangeably. I wonder what I'm missing.

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8 Answers 8

up vote 9 down vote accepted

At a bare minimum, you'll want at least one "flavoured" and one "unflavoured" oil.

Olive oil is definitely the most common choice for a flavoured oil, and sunflower/peanut/canola oil all have pretty neutral flavours (not to mention similar smoke points).

Note that for good flavour you'll want extra virgin olive oil, which also makes it unsuitable for frying/sautéing at high temperatures.

So I would say that you already have the minimum requirement. That said, even the "unflavoured" oils have subtly different flavour characteristics due to their different fat contents, and you'll want to take this into consideration if you like to cook in ethnic cuisines. A short list (and keep in mind that this is partially subjective):

  • Peanut oil: Asian cuisine, Mexican cuisine (high-temperature frying)
  • Sesame oil: Asian cuisine (stir-fry or deep-fry [refined only])
  • Olive oil: Italian cuisine, French cuisine (low-temp)
  • Sunflower or Canola oil: American cuisine, esp. deep-frying
  • Grape seed oil: Decent substitute for any of the other oils
  • Walnut/almond oil: Great for fried desserts (watch the smoke point though).
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For the sesame oil, what you want is toasted sesame oil - you can recognize it from the deep, dark brown color. It isn't used for cooking; a few drops are added in a finished dish to add an intense sesame flavor. (Sometimes more than a few drops, in dressing form). –  Michael at Herbivoracious Sep 2 '10 at 18:52
    
+1: These are good suggestions and background info. –  Noldorin Sep 2 '10 at 19:40
    
@Michael: Toasted sesame oil is used for frying rice in East Asian cuisine. –  Noldorin Sep 2 '10 at 19:41
    
@Michael: I thought of pointing that out (I've pointed it out in other answers) but decided to stick to cooking oils. Your point is of course correct, as long as the toasted sesame oil is not used for cooking. I also add 1 tsp - 1 tbsp in many stir-fry sauces. Of course, if we're getting into non-cooking oils then there's also chili oil and many of the more esoteric nut oils, etc. Definitely not an exhaustive list here. :) –  Aaronut Sep 2 '10 at 20:03
    
@Noldorin - I've never seen the toasted sesame oil used for the frying of fried rice; what I've seen is that you fry with peanut oil and then drizzle in the toasted sesame oil at the end. Reference for the other way? –  Michael at Herbivoracious Sep 2 '10 at 21:45

If you deep-fry, peanut should be the 2nd. The neutral seed oils (canola, sunflower, corn, etc.) all cook about the same. Peanut has a fairly high smoke point, so is better for deep-frying. Olive has a good flavor. Sesame, almond, walnut and other nut oils are short-lived, and tend to be expensive. They make great additions to salad dressings or as a finishing flavor in some dishes (sesame is great in a stir fry).

Olive oil has a low smoke point (especially extra virgin), and will loose considerable flavor if heated, so it isn't recommended for frying (it costs more than the seed oils, and its a shame to waste it). Any high-temp cooking should not be done in olive oil.

Since I don't deep fry often, I have two cooking oils on hand: good olive, and canola. The olive is used mainly to finish or in lower temp saute/sweat. The canola is used to fry onions, pancakes, meat, and anything else that takes some higher heat. I chose canola because it has a neutral flavor and a fairly good omega-3 content. Plus it was cheap.

I also have some white truffle, walnut, and sesame in the fridge for finishing. They aren't used terribly often, and a bit goes a long way. Also: butter. Although it isn't really an oil, I use lots of butter/ghee(clarified butter) in my cooking. Good one to make sure you always have on hand.

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Peanut oil has the same smoke point as sunflower and corn oil. Canola oil is actually higher. I was under the impression that most fried-food (or fast-food) restaurants actually use sunflower oil because it's lower in saturated fat. –  Aaronut Sep 2 '10 at 18:45
    
Fair food is typically peanut oil from my experience. mmm it is about that time of year anyway! –  Chris Sep 2 '10 at 19:32
    
Olive and canola are my choices as well. That's all I keep on hand. –  Instance Hunter Sep 2 '10 at 20:16
    
Hmm... I always thought that peanut was best for deep frying. We always use it to deep-fry turkeys, maybe just because its cheap and we need about 3-5 gallons. –  Adam Shiemke Sep 7 '10 at 14:33
    
If you're deep-frying, I would think smoke point is less important, as you will be heating such a massive volume that you're unlikely to blow past the proper temperature. For pan frying and stir-fry, your pan may well be far in excess of the oil's proper temperature, where a more tolerant oil will be more forgiving. –  Nick T Oct 25 '10 at 15:05

Olive extra virgin and sunflower. Same here. Make sure the olive oil is extra virgin though, for flavor and use sparingly.

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We often have much more than two, but I'd say the two you really need are olive oil and some form of vegetable oil (vegetable, cannola, sunflower). The second type will often have a higher smoke point than olive oil. I find olive oil has much more flavor than vegetable or cannola oil. Olive oil is often used in dressings as well.

Once you start to get in to more specific dishes, you may find the number balloons from two though. Sesame oil for asian food, peanut oil for deep frying, a nice evoo for salads. I think we have about 6 different types of oil, but we mostly just use olive and cannola.

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If you're looking for a 'must keep on hand' list -- a mild oil, extra virgin olive oil and butter will get you through most anything. Add shortening if you like baking, and sesame oil if you like to cook asian food, and you'll be prepared for most anything.

For the justification see my response to What oil or fat to use for different purposes?

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I've actually come to find lately that grape seed oil is extremely versatile. It has a very light, mild flavor, and when used in cooking you almost can't taste it at all. When used in its "raw" state, the flavor is a little nutty, and makes a very nice addition to salads/dressings. I've used it to make a basil infusion that was great. And, with a very high smoke point, it's safe to use for frying and sauteing.

I now use grapeseed oil in place of olive and vegetable oils in a whole lot of recipes. It's become my go-to oil lately.

If I had to have only two oils in my kitchen, they would be an olive oil, and grape seed oil.

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I agree, it's quite versatile and can substitute well for many other oils. Note that it does have a lower smoke point than the refined peanut/sunflower/canola oils and is probably not suitable for deep-frying (but is still great for pan-frying). –  Aaronut Sep 2 '10 at 20:05
    
@Aaron: I do very little deep frying, so my knowledge on that is only from reading, not from experience, but from what I understand you deep fry at 375F, 400F max. Peanut and sunflower seem to have a SP of 450, and grape seed is 420, which is obviously different, but should still be in the "safe" range for deep frying, no? –  stephennmcdonald Sep 2 '10 at 20:28
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@stephen: 375° F is typical, but I've seen recipes calling for higher temperatures - it depends on what you're frying. You also want a safety margin, since the temperature isn't necessarily going to be perfectly uniform; if you're deep frying at 400° F, then a 450° F smoke point is totally safe, but 420° F is a little on the risky side; one slip and it's burnt. I'm sure that professionals can deal with such tight margins easily, but I wouldn't recommend it to a novive-to-intermediate home cook. –  Aaronut Sep 2 '10 at 20:43
    
@Aaron: great point, noted in case I ever start using the deep fryer I received as a gift :) Thanks for the info! –  stephennmcdonald Sep 2 '10 at 20:44
    
Ah, well if you have an actual deep fryer then that's another story; the whole idea of those is that they're basically worry-free. I was really think of deep-frying in a wok or pan, which is considerably less precise (but still just as delicious). –  Aaronut Sep 2 '10 at 20:45

One oil with a high smoke point, plus any with flavors you like.

I keep:

  • peanut or canola oil
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • sesame oil

and sometime a small quantity of something else if a recipe called for it.

Other fats on hand include:

  • butter
  • schmaltz (skimmed from a chicken pot left to cool, rewarmed, poured into ice cube trays to freeze and kept in a baggie in the freezer)
  • bacon fat (poured hot from the pan into a jar by the stove; mostly used for seasoning my cast iron, but also for flavor)
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Olive oil is a must have in a Kitchen. The only other type of oil that you want to keep is something with a neutral flavor and high smoke point. I recommend Canola oil or Vegetable oil.

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