Director of Culinary Innovation
What makes it worse is that companies market their oils in confusing ways. Think of the term "light olive oil." There really is no such thing; it's a name made up for marketing. People think it has less calories because of the word "light," but it doesn't. All oils have 9 calories per gram.
Even the recommended ways to use different oils have changed over the years. For example, when I was a culinary student, I was told you can't use extra-virgin olive oil for cooking because it burns easily. But as I travel throughout the Mediterranean, I see cooks sauteing, poaching and even filling deep fryers with it.
In a nutshell, here's what you need to know to use oils in today's kitchen:
Extra-virgin olive oil: I use this for almost everything in my kitchen. With a green color and fruity flavor, this unrefined oil can be used for sauteing and seasoning by adding a dash of it as your dish goes to the table.
Canola oil: This heart-healthy oil with a fairly high smoke point is pressed from rapeseed, a member of the turnip family. It became popular in the 1990s and is quite neutral in flavor. Good mixed with other oils for sauteing.
Corn oil: Fairly neutral in flavor, with a high smoke point, this oil is an old favorite with many cooks. It is heart healthy and fairly inexpensive. I use it when making southwestern dishes, corn salads, Mexican-based pan sautes and dressings.
Grape seed oil: It's made from pressing grape seeds left from wine making. Because this oil has virtually no flavor and a high smoke point, I've been using this more and more for sauteing and mixing with other oils to raise their smoke points. It's great to mix with extra-virgin olive oil or sesame oil for sauteing.
Peanut oil: Inexpensive and great for sauteing, this heart-healthy oil is often used for wok frying and other Chinese cooking. I combine it with an equal part dark-roasted sesame oil to use for stir fries.
Dark roasted sesame oil: Made from roasted sesame seeds, it is wonderful as a seasoning on Asian foods or mixed with peanut or canola oil for stir fries.
Here are some less common oils that are worth trying:
Nut oils: I use walnut, hazelnut, almond and pumpkin seed oils for seasoning only. They are expensive but delicious on salads and for dipping bread as well as drizzling over pasta, rice or vegetables. Keep them in a cool dark place as they go rancid in Florida's heat. Try one at a time and go wild with it before buying another.
Tea oil: Pressed from the seeds of tea plants, it's relatively new, but I've tried it, and it makes for good table conversation. It has a delicate floral flavor good for salads and pasta dishes. Also great in Asian dishes.
Try these oils for fun and to be different: Rice bran oil, truffle oil, flax seed oil, chia oil (chia is an Aztec super seed also used to sprout Chia Pets), wheat germ oil, coconut oil.
Making infused oils: You can easily flavor oils by lightly heating them with some of your favorite aromatics. Try heating 2 cups canola, olive or peanut oil with 2 tablespoons of any of the following either alone or in combination: crushed dried red pepper flakes, dried orange peel, chopped fresh herb sprigs, black peppercorns, bay leaves, chopped ginger root or whole garlic cloves. Remember, don't boil the oil. Leave the spices in the oil as they will continue to flavor the oil as it steeps.