Chefs and consumers alike can be understandably confused about the plethora of cooking oils available today. Beyond the usual suspects (olive, vegetable and canola oils), there are now so many others on the scene (think nut-derived and grapeseed oils) that you need a scorecard to keep up. When it comes to your frying, finishing, baking and sauteing needs, which type—or types—should you choose?
“Restaurant chefs look for versatile ingredients that will complement the flavors of their dishes,” says Pam Smith, RDN, a culinary nutrition and menu development consultant for Shaping America’s Plate in Orlando, Florida. “They’d rather have two or three oils in their stockrooms versus 20.”
But narrowing your list down to two or three may not be easy. Here, we look at some of the most popular oils for cooking so you can better determine your ideal selections.
For his two Houston-based concepts, chef Anthony Russo uses a line of proprietary cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil from the Russo family olive grove in Italy.
True to Type
Many different oils can be used in pizzerias, depending on the application, according to Rick Cummisford, quality control director for Columbus Vegetable Oils in Des Plaines, Illinois. “Typically, oils are used as an ingredient in dough, sauce or dressings, whether for sauteing vegetables or other ingredients, for deep frying or in desserts,” he says. “The oils used by pizzeria chefs vary by recipe and depend on individual preferences. But more often than not, soybean oil or other economical refined oils are the most frequently used.”
Smith agrees that the type of operation often dictates oil choices; a smaller or high-end operation may use olive oil to grease a pizza pan, for example, while a larger chain may choose a neutral-tasting, less-expensive vegetable oil, such as soy or canola. Cummisford adds that extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) delivers a more authentic flavor but tends to be more expensive, so a pizzaiolo may blend EVOO with soybean or canola oil to reduce cost while maintaining flavor.
“When it comes to pizzerias, oils can be used to make dough, finish pizzas and oil the pans; some pizzerias may even offer oil at tables for dipping,” says David Eisner-Kleyle, director of operations for Milwaukee-based Vom Fass USA. “A good extra-virgin olive oil is essential for specialty pizzas and dipping oils—it’s high-quality and has more pungent flavors—but there are also infused oils (oregano, truffle or pepperoncini), as well as nut and seed oils, that are great for drizzling over pizzas.”
More expensive oil varieties, including specialty and flavored oils, are best used in small quantities, such as for dipping bread at the table or drizzling on finished pizzas.
Proper selection is important because of the ways in which different oils can affect the outcome of your finished product. “Oil can be an essential ingredient in a recipe,” Smith says. “Take mayonnaise, where oil is the primary ingredient. The oil creates an emulsion with the other ingredients—vinegar, sugar, egg yolk and seasonings—and results in a creamy, full-flavored, rich product. Choice of oil impacts the flavor.”
Smith adds that oil can also act as a cooking medium, transferring heat from a pan, grill or fryer into what you’re cooking, such as with French fries. “The oil is heated to the optimum temperature to transfer heat from the frying apparatus into the French fry, with the desired result of a crisp, golden end product—and, ideally, you won’t taste the oil at all, just the fresh potato flavor,” Smith explains. “Stir frying is also a good illustration of this: Put vegetables in a hot pan without oil and they might burn and barely cook, but add oil and they start to sizzle.” For pan frying, a chef might choose a more flavorful oil, such as olive, grapeseed or sesame.
Eisner-Kleyle believes that refined oils are best for use with high heat, while flavorful oils, such as high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, are ideal as a garnish or end flavoring (use these in their cold state and add on a hot pizza; they’ll open up the ingredients’ flavors). “If you’re looking for high-heat cooking/frying oils, try a grapeseed or peanut oil,” he suggests. “Use extra-virgin olive oil, infused olive oils and infused nut and seed oils for salad dressings, dipping and finishing.”
Cummisford points out that highly refined oils, including soybean, canola and sunflower, have practically no flavor or aroma. “Corn oil does have a slight corn essence, which can transfer over into food,” he says. “Olive oil’s flavor is often quite strong and will carry over to the finished product, but chefs can dilute the flavor by blending with other oils.” Depending on the recipe, oils can create a varying impact, so he recommends experimenting with different oils in each of your recipes and selecting the one that produces the best results.
In many cases, you may find that a blend works best. Because extra-virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point, its phenols and flavonoids are lost when heated to high levels (though the oil remains a healthful monounsaturated oil), according to Smith. “However, it’s not an economical or sustainable choice for foodservice frying; it’s better for marinades, dressings, etc.,” she says. “Many restaurants use a flavorful and cost-effective blend of olive oil and neutral oils like soybean or canola.”
Today, operators can select from healthier and low-cost oil options for frying, sautéing, baking and more.
The Right Recipe
Although you may select an all-purpose oil for your pizzeria, you can also tailor your oil to the recipe. Cummisford offers the following oil/fat suggestions (and their benefits) for common pizzeria staples: Pizza dough and sauce can incorporate soybean oil (an economical choice); corn oil (also cost-effective but imparts some flavor); extra-virgin olive oil (for authentic Italian flavor); and butter. Alternatively, all purpose-shortening can be used in dough for flakier or thicker crusts. “For deep-frying, chefs have their own personal preferences, but with the recent health concerns surrounding partially hydrogenated oils, there are now some excellent options for liquid frying oils, such as soybean or canola liquid shortenings, that contain no trans fats or are low in saturated fats,” Cummisford adds. “Meanwhile, for desserts, many prefer butter, all-purpose shortenings or liquid oils such as soybean and canola oils for some recipes.”
Smith notes that extra-virgin olive oil is popular for recipes in which an olivelike taste is desired, but for sauteing and grilling vegetables and meats, olive oil has a higher smoke point than extra-virgin. “A neutral-flavored, less-expensive oil, such as soybean oil, works well in dressings and marinades, where you really need the fat to carry and enhance the flavor of the other ingredients, such as spices or peppers,” she adds. “In this case, a little oil can go a long way to help flavors cling to the product and maximize flavor impact in the dish.”
For breads, muffins and cakes, Smith also recommends neutral-flavored oils; they add tenderness to grain-based recipes without adding flavor. But you can also use a more flavorful oil, like corn oil, to make a recipe like cornbread, in which the flavor would complement the end product. “For deep-frying and high-heat cooking, you want to use a stable oil with a high smoke point, but the fatty acid profile is important,” Smith says. “While soybean, canola, sunflower, safflower and peanut oil have all been popular for frying in the past, chefs would generally blend these oils with hydrogenated vegetable oils (which have trans fats) or highly saturated fats like palm oil to increase the stability and fry life of the oils.” Fortunately, Smith notes, healthier modern alternatives can effectively replace these blends, so stocking olive oil and a neutral oil can serve the needs of a pizzeria’s entire menu.
|At a Glance|
Rick Cummisford, quality control director for Columbus Vegetable Oils in Des Plaines, Illinois, offers a helpful chart to outline the properties of some common cooking oils:
The anti-trans-fat craze may have quieted a few years back, but many consumers remain concerned about the healthfulness of their oils. Cummisford points out that trans fat is naturally present in all oils at very low concentrations (about 1% or less), but high levels of trans fats can be avoided by not using products that contain partially hydrogenated oils. “There are many factors that play into what makes oils healthy, but the typical rule of thumb is to avoid trans fat and reduce saturated fat,” he explains. “Saturated fat is often quite low in most vegetable oils, but the lowest of these are canola and sunflower oils, which both fall below 10%.” Cummisford adds that chefs may also consider the omega fatty acids in products such as canola oil, pointing to studies that show reducing omega 6 and increasing omega 3 can benefit overall health.
Given consumer preference for healthier foods, plus a pending FDA Generally Recognized as Safe status ruling, it’s important to use oils that contribute 0 grams of trans fat and are low in saturated fat, Smith says. She notes that high-oleic soybean oil, for example, offers some of the better traits of partially hydrogenated soy oil, with an improved fatty acid profile, plus 20% to 60% lower saturated fat (compared to commodity soybean oil). It also has no trans fat and three times the amount of monounsaturated fatty acids, plus superior resistance to oxidation and reduced buildup of polymers on equipment in high-heat applications. Finally, high-oleic soybean oil offers an increased oxidative stability index, with values greater than 25 hours (meaning more fryer time and reduced annual costs), and a neutral flavor profile that allows ingredients to stand out. “That said, it’s not just the type of oil used; it’s also how the oils are being used, so I work with restaurants to employ the principles of healthful frying—for example, using wet batters (they’re less absorptive) and plating fried foods with lower calorie sides or salads,” Smith explains.
Smith notes that extra-virgin olive oil is another healthy choice, containing high levels of monounsaturated fats, plus phytochemicals and nutraceuticals with myriad health benefits. But there are other healthy oils on the market, too. “Vegetable oils tend to have polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, not trans fats,” Eisner-Kleyle says. “Grapeseed, peanut and filtered avocado oils have a high smoke point and are good for you, with omega fatty acids. Cold-pressed nut and seed oils and true extra-virgin olive oils are also healthy options when used in their cold states.”
The bottom line: Once you factor in your desired uses, budget, and healthfulness and taste preferences, you’ll be able to find the perfect oil (or blend) for your needs. “Many products have been developed that improve the health of the finished products by eliminating trans fat and improving the quality of the food,” concludes Cummisford. “And many of these improvements are the result of working directly with chefs and offering suggestions to address their applications. Each restaurant and their recipes are unique, and they should be treated as such.”
|The Chef’s Perspective|
Two top pizza chefs dish on their favorite oils for cooking and finishing:
Chef Anthony Russo
“There are dozens of different types of oils: olive oil for flavor, canola oil for frying, and specialty oils for flavor nuances and to accommodate allergies. Personally, I like to use extra-virgin olive oil. While it is one of the most expensive oils, it’s also one of the purest when cold-pressed. This oil is great for drizzling or finishing dishes, as it gives the flavor of the oil the chance to shine. It’s also great in dressings. Another option for dressings and sauteing is grapeseed oil. And if you’re frying, canola oil is your best bet. Its neutral flavor takes nothing from the food.
“For olive oil, the region of Italy that it comes from creates different distinguishing characteristics. I like to use Sicilian organic extra-virgin olive oil; it’s dark green in color and imparts a smoky and peppery flavor. It also contains vitamins E and K and has great antioxidant properties.
“When using olive oil, you can taste the difference in quality. Don’t skimp by using olive pomace oil—it’s certainly cheaper, but it also contains harmful toxins. Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives and has no refined oils. It’s the most healthy olive oil option, with less than 0.8% acidity, and its flavor can’t be beat.” —
“My preference is extra-virgin olive oil because the oil adds fat to the dough—and with fat comes flavor, so the dough tastes better. When using oil to cook meat and fish, I always use an 80%-to-20% blend of canola to olive oil. Canola oil has a higher burning point, so it won’t scorch the meat—it will simply sear it—but the added olive oil allows the meat or fish to caramelize better and adds a great color to the exterior.
“For an exceptionally healthy dish, I’d cook with grapeseed oil, which I love to use in tabbouleh, couscous or any type of tossed cold salad, like an antipasto salad. It’s really low in fat and makes the dish superlight.
“In terms of oil to stay clear of, I’d say [avoid] peanut oil because so many people are allergic, and it’s high in fat.”