The last time you went to the supermarket, did you happen to notice all the different types of cooking oils on the shelf? There’re the old standbys olive and canola oils, but you may also encounter things like walnut, sesame and even avocado oils. All cooking oils are a type of fat made from plant sources (typically nuts and seeds), and many are the heart healthy mono- and polyunsaturated types which may help raise “good” cholesterol; especially when substituted for butter. We all need some fat in the diet to help build and maintain cells and absorb certain vitamins. Plus, fat adds flavor and texture to food and baked goods. Specialty and gourmet oils can even add their own distinct flavor to your dishes.
When deciding what type of oil to use when cooking, the most important thing to be aware of is the smoke point: the temperature at which heated oil starts to smoke. Heating oil beyond this point will cause it to break down and leave an unpleasant flavor in your food. (Not to mention a good chance the oil will catch fire!) The smoke point is different for each type of oil, making some better choices than others for certain cooking methods.
If your holiday menu includes fried foods (like latkes), an oil with a high smoke point like canola or corn oil is best. Canola oil can even be used as a substitute for butter or margarine in some recipes; its neutral flavor won’t affect the taste of the finished dish. Oils with a lower smoke point, such as some types of sesame or walnut oil, are better suited to use as a condiment to add flavor to finished dishes or cooking at a lower heat. Olive oil, a main feature in the Mediterranean Diet high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, falls somewhere in the middle. Extra virgin olive oil can be used in baking or sautéing foods at medium heat, but its distinct flavor is also well suited to dressings and sauces (or even drizzling right on steamed veggies).
Whichever type of oil you choose, it will stay fresh if stored in a tightly closed container away from heat and light. It’s also good to keep in mind that all fats, even heart-healthy olive oil, are high in calories. At nine calories per gram and about 100-120 per tablespoon, those calories can add up quickly! Paying attention to portion size can help prevent holiday weight gain. And as always, include a variety of fruits and veggies; whole grains; lean meat, fish and poultry; and low fat dairy in your meal plan.
Wishing you a happy holiday season!