Let Freedom Fry: A Primer On Cooking Oils

As many of you know, Independence Day is just around the corner…and you know what that means (or maybe you don’t): it’s time to eat everything that makes America great. I know “American” and “cuisine” are not two words that should ever be put together, but let’s be real: the American insistence that you can fry just about anything edible is admirable, and something you may consider putting to the test one day (especially if you’re like me and aspire to own a vintage range with a built-in deep fryer). Before you go ahead and try to fry everything in your fridge with whatever oil you have lying around, check out my quick primer on which oils are good for what. And then enthusiastically try to duplicate this year’s Minnesota State Fair foods!

 

  1. Vegetable Oil: First of all, you should probably know what makes a good frying oil and what doesn’t: it’s all about smoke point. The higher the smoke point, the higher the temperature before the oil burns. Oils with a higher smoke point make for better frying, because you can turn the heat up quite high for some grade-A, fast frying. That’s why you should probably keep vegetable oil (and I’m referring to the inexpensive Crisco stuff) on hand: its smoke point is 466 degrees fahrenheit, and it has a mild flavor. If you burn it, you’re probably in the process of burning your house down. It’s definitely a decent substitute for lard if you’re not really into stuffing your arteries full of animal fat that day. Just look at the number it did on some corn tortillas I fried up to use for a feeble attempt at huevos rancheros:
  2. Olive oil: This is something you probably always have around your house. For a long time, I lumped all oil together because…oil is oil, right? WRONG. Olive oil has a low smoke point, so it’s a horror show when you try to fry anything with it. It’s also flavorful, so if you use too much of it in anything you make, it can wind up tasting a little TOO much like olives (source: I made pancakes using olive oil once, used too much, and it was probably one of the grossest things I’d ever made). Olive oil is awesome for sautéing and doing anything over moderate heat. Another tip: extra virgin olive oil is super-refined and more flavorful so it’s better to use it for food that isn’t cooked, like salad dressings or dipping in bread. When it’s time to apply heat, less expensive regular olive oil will do the trick.
  3. Coconut Oil: Okay, it can add a subtle nutty flavor to food that you make with it, but coconut oil is pretty much the best thing ever. It’s solid at room temperature, and its low melting point (76 degrees Fahrenheit) makes it a candidate for baking more than anything else, but it’s also great for making curries and you can use it for basically any beauty routine you can think of. Seriously. Sugar scrubs, moisturizer, hair treatment: coconut oil is a great thing to have in the house.
  4. Avocado Oil: We already know that avocados are the best thing in the world, because all the best foods are spreadable. Add frying to one more thing avocados are good for: its oil competes with coconut oil for versatility (including for beauty regimens), but edges it out because its smoke point is quite high (between 480 and 520 degrees Fahrenheit), so it’s good to use for deep-frying all that food in your fridge that just needed the boost of a nice, crispy crust to be perfect. That being said, this isn’t cheap. Not at all. That’s why I haven’t tried it yet- but it’s on my frying bucket list.

So go forth and do your duty as an American this Independence Day: deep fry everything. And anything that doesn’t deep fry, throw on a grill. Just make sure you use the right oil to prevent your entire meal from bursting into flames.

Interested in further reference? This article from the New York Times’ fabulous Melissa Clark has the low-down on everything oily.

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