Vegetable oil should stay behind the scenes, whether you’re baking, sautéing, or making salad dressing. But pick the wrong oil, and your food could taste like old fish.
Published Mar. 1, 2010. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 21: Burgers and Chips
Cooking oil is one of the oldest culinary ingredients. Since ancient times, people have made oil from olives, palms, and rapeseed. But many familiar oils in this country came along much more recently. While peanuts are native to the New World, it took the Old World to turn them into cooking oil after explorers brought them back to Europe. (Only a trickle of peanut oil was made in America until World War I, when the military needed it to make glycerin for explosives.) Corn oil is another modern invention: In 1910, a chemist discovered a way to refine it for cooking, and Mazola corn oil was launched the next year. Cottonseed oil was hugely popular in the early 20th century—Crisco, invented in 1911, stands for “crystallized cottonseed oil”—but World War II shortages let soybean oil take the lead. It remained the most widely used oil in postwar America until the mid-1980s, when canola oil hit U.S. supermarkets—with a boost from Canadian oil producers, who cleverly trademarked a more appealing name for rapeseed oil (based on the words “Canada Oil, Low Acid”).
Today, the average grocery store stocks more than a dozen vegetable oils, from canola to corn to soybean, and blends of one or more oils. Add a profusion of vague names like “Vegetable Plus!” and “Natural Blend,” and suddenly vegetable oil can be downright confusing. Are there any real differences in performance that will matter to the home cook?
Vegetable oil is a workhorse of the kitchen partly because of its neutral taste: Fat conveys flavor, and with no strong taste of its own, vegetable oil highlights other ingredients. That unobtrusive flavor profile makes it ideal not only for frying and sautéing, but also for baked goods—our Fluffy Yellow Layer Cake (March/April 2008), for example—that need more moisture than butter alone can offer, and salad dressings where the stronger presence of olive oil is not preferred. Ideally, so as not to clog our pantry with redundant items, we’d find a one-size-fits-all oil—one that could function seamlessly in everything from rich, creamy mayonnaise or vinaigrette to moist, sweet cake and crisp, golden fried food.
For the last of these tasks, refined vegetable oils have a built-in advantage: a generally high smoke point, the temperature at which wisps of smoke appear, signaling that the oil is breaking down. Cooking in oil past its smoke point gives food an off-flavor. Smoke points are not absolutes; older and less refined oils have lower smoke points, and there is some variation according to the type of oil. Our lineup averaged about 450 degrees: fine for everyday shall...
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Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.