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Oils and Their Uses

Updated on November 27, 2016

Oil is a fatty substance which remains liquid at room temperature. There are many different types of oil. Some are so refined that very little flavor remains, so choose an oil to suit your palate. Oils always give a crisp finish to any food and are best for frying, especially if fried food is to be eaten cold. When buying oil, look to see what it is made of; this is usually in the small print under the brand name.

Fats and oils are used in almost every aspect of cookery, but with the bewildering number now available, it's hard to know which to choose. Here is a detailed run-down on the culinary oils (and over here is the fats) so you can choose wisely.

Olive Oil

Truly the queen of oils, good olive oil is fragrant, fruity and adds delicious flavor to foods.

The very best olive oil is known as virgin oil and comes from the first pressing of fresh green olives. It is pale green in color and has a beautiful aroma. Virgin oil is expensive but is well worth using for salad dressingsand mayonnaise where the flavor of the oil plays a great part in the dish.

Second-pressing olive oil is extracted from the olives after they have been pressed for virgin oil. Pale yellow in color, it is not so fine in flavor as the best oil but is suitable for salad dressings, mayonnaise and for shallow-frying vegetables or offal. It is unsuitable for deep frying.

Low-grade olive oil is made from crushed olives which have been heated and pressed. flavor is poor and it is not really suitable for salad dressings or mayonnaise. Low-grade oil can be used for shallow frying.


Olivette, or salad oil as it is sometimes called, is a mixture of olive oil and corn oil. It can be used for salad dressings but does not have a particularly good flavor. The addition of corn oil raises the smoke point, so Olivette can be used for both deep and shallow frying.

Corn Oil

Corn oil is extracted from sweet corn kernels. It is completely tasteless and is really only suitable for deep frying. It has a low decomposition temperature (gets hot enough to seal quickly) so crisp results are guaranteed almost every time. Corn oil manufacturers claim that oil does not transfer flavors so the same oil can be used for sweet and savory dishes. If you do a lot of deep frying, it may be worth keeping separate oils for sweet and savory use. However, if you have an electric fryer with a carbon filter, this is not necessary as the filter extracts flavors. Always strain oil through muslin or kitchen paper after use to remove solids and keep it clean and fresh.

Groundnut or Peanut Oil

Originally peanut oil had a rather pleasant flavor of peanuts but modern refining techniques have removed this. It can be used for making salad dressings but does not add any flavor. Peanut oil is suitable for deep frying but is rather expensive for this purpose compared with corn oil.

Sunflower Oil

Sunflower oil is made from the seeds of the sunflower. It is light and has a pleasantly nutty flavor and is a good choice if you do not like the fruity flavor of olives. It is suitable for salad dressings, mayonnaise and shallow frying. It is a little too expensive to use for deep frying.

Sesame Seed Oil

Made from the seeds of the sesame plant, this oil is rich, nutty and full of character. Sesame seed oil is used extensively in Chinese cooking and in Middle Eastern dishes such as humous and tahina. It makes a very pleasant salad dressing, too.

Walnut Oil

Walnut oil is extremely expensive but one of the finest oils for salad dressings. Price, however, forbids its use for anything but the grandest of occasions.

Coconut Oil

This rather sweet oil is widely used in African and South East Asian cooking. It is difficult to obtain and expensive and therefore is really only worth buying if you want to produce an ethnic dish with a truly authentic flavor.

Colza or Rape Oil

This is the oldest oil of Mediterranean cooking and is made from the seeds of the rape plant. It is relatively flavorless. It can be used in the same way as second-grade olive oil.

Cotton Seed Oil

This light oil is widely used in Indian cooking and for the manufacture of margarine. Once again, it is not really worth buying unless you want to make a dish which is really authentic. You will find it in Indian provision stores and delicatessens. It is quite expensive.

Grape Seed Oil

Grape seed oil has a beautiful smell and flavor and is excellent for salads. It is marginally more expensive than finest grade olive oil.

Mustard Seed Oil

Another oil from Asia, mustard seed oil has quite a strong flavor. In Italy it is favored for use in making mustard pickles.

Safflower Oil

Safflower oil is made from the flowers of the false saffron. This nutty-flavored oil can be used for salad dressings and for shallow frying.

Almond Oil

Almond oil is a sweet oil used for flavoring sweets and other confectionery. Usually only bought by professional confectioners.


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