After Hours: Checking the Oil

Kathy Biehl is the food writer for Diversion magazine and the former longtime dining critic for the Houston Business Journal. She has reviewed restaurants as well for the Houston Press, Time Out New York, My Table and the TONY Guide Eating & Drinking 2000. Her food writing has received awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Houston Press Club. She is also the author of the LLRX.com Research RoundUp and Web Critic columns, co-author of The Lawyer's Guide to Internet Research, and an attorney admitted to practice in Texas and New Jersey.

"Good oil, like good wine, is a gift from the gods." — George Ellwanger.

Essential Oils / Utility Player / Specialty Olive Oils / Specialty Oils / Storage Tips

Essential Oils

These oils have a place in every pantry:

Extra virgin olive oil, for most general purposes. "Extra virgin" means that the oil came from the first, cold pressing of the olive harvest and has no more than 1% acidity. Some TV chefs shorten the name to "EVOO" (does anyone else find that annoying?). Whatever the name, this oil has become the workhouse of contemporary cooking. The best basic supermarket brands are Colavita, which is sweet, fruity, and balanced, and Bertolli, which is slightly lighter.

Of the better brands, Lucini and Newman's Own Organics are tops. At around $11 a bottle, both of these have a smooth, bold flavor that is surprisingly close to estate-bottled olive oils that cost three times as much. And if you find Kirkland Signature brand extra virgin olive oil on the shelf at a Costco (it's not available year-round), don't hesitate to invest in the two-quart bottle. This Italian import has a clean, mild taste, without little of the afterburn that generally accompanies this type of oil.

A basic cooking oil, for baking and other uses that require an unobtrusive presence. I prefer canola, which has half the fat of vegetable oil. The canola oils from Wesson and Mazola are both acceptable, and I generally buy whichever is cheaper.

Peanut oil, for frying. Keep Planters on hand for economical deep- frying. Stir-frying will take more character from a roasted peanut oil, such as Loriva.

Sesame oil, if you do Asian cooking with any regularity. Loriva Extra Virgin Sesame Oil is a good light choice; for intense flavor, I recommend Rapunzel Pure Organic Sesame Oil.

Utility Player

The most versatile oil in my pantry comes from seeds of the Camellia plant, the dried leaves of which you would recognize as...tea. Tea oil (17 ounces, $12.99), which the Republic of Tea sells in 17 and 30 ounces canisters, has an uncommonly high flash point, suiting it for super-hot stove work, and an enjoyably clean, complex flavor that rolls from green to herbal to nutty notes.

Specialty Olive Oils

These specialty olive oils are well worth the extra cost. Just be sure to check the vintage date before buying, and pass up anything that has been sitting on the shelf for a year or more.

Badia al Coltibuono (33.8 ounces, about $30), made from hand-picked olives in the Chianti region outside Florence, has a complex unfolding of rich, fruity, and peppery notes, reminiscent of a fine wine. Savor this oil drizzled onto crusty bread and firm grilled vegetables.

Ruby Grapefruit (8.5 ounces, $16.00) is the latest of  O Olive Oil's organic California citrus oils, which are made by crushing fruit along with the olives. The process creates a potent melding of flavors that is ideal for fish, vegetables, and boldly flavored greens.

Oliviers & Co. Specialty Olive Oil infused with fresh basil (8.4 ounces, $20) adds aromatic elegance to whatever it graces, from paper-thin slices of green apple to otherwise lowly scrambled eggs. Order directly from Oliviers & Co.

Specialty Oils

Use specialty oils sparingly: They cost too much for every day use and (fortunately!) they pack quite a wallop.

Nut oil adds a luscious finishing touch to fish and also enhances greens nicely. I like A L'Olivier's almond, hazelnut and walnut oils, which cost between $7 - $15 for an 8.3 ounce bottle. (Websurfers, be forewarned that the English language version of this French company's site was under construction at this writing.) Also impressive is Dr. Pescatore's MacNut Oil (8.5 ounces, $9.99), which combines a high flash point (twice that of olive oil) with the buttery flavor of macadamias.

Truffle oil injects earthiness with just a few drops. Cuisine Perel Black Truffle Oil 6.5 ounces $11.95) has a grapeseed oil base that stays out of the way of the truffle flavor.

Citrus oil punches up baked goods and lends summery tones to salad dressings. Boyajian makes all the flavors you'd expect, plus tangerine and grapefruit. A five-ounce bottle is $6 - $14, depending on the fruit. A cost-effective way to try them out is Boyajian's citrus oil set, which contains one-ounce bottles of orange, lemon and lime, for $9.

Storage Tips

Because oil contains fats that will eventually go rancid, proper storage is essential. Keep oil in a cool, dark place. Use the refrigerator if your pantry is warm, and always refrigerate nut oil after opening. And because oils have a finite life (one year is a safe guideline), avoid the impulse to buy a larger quantity than you are likely to use. Even if the unit price is appealing, a jumbo bottle is no bargain if most of it goes to waste.

Copyright 2005 Kathy Biehl. All Rights Reserved.