Every oil has specific qualities that can enhance or derail whatever you’re trying to cook.
When it comes to taste, the oil you use matters the most. For instance when I am cooking a traditional Bengali mutton curry, I use nothing but refined cold pressed mustard oil. No other oil will bring out the authentic flavour. A good quality coconut oil works beautifully with avail or sambar. Dishes from the south also use sesame oil which enhances the flavour profile. Authentic interpretation of certain dishes call for a particular oil and you simply can’t replace it with another oil. My mom used to make a lot of pickles and she always used mustard oil. I can’t imagine them in any other oil. But yes, you have to be careful with mustard, sesame and coconut oil. It has a distinctive aroma and strong potency. A little goes a long way. You have to know where to stop. Personally I love coconut oil. We use it a lot in our Indian specialty restaurant. South Indian dishes from Kerala and Karnataka are either cooked or finished in coconut oil.
Ghee the super food
Ghee is hailed as a super food these days. I love it irrespective of anything. If your grandfather ate it and lived till 85, it had something to do with ghee. They weren’t running marathons but they led a healthy lifestyle and ate an awful amount of ghee. It’s a fabulous medium to cook with and lends itself beautifully to Indian dishes. A parantha cooked to crispy, golden brown with a dollop of ghee is gastronomic heaven. I believe a lot of the oils that were used in the past by our grand parents whether it was kacchi ghani, sesame oil or coconut oil were by far healthier than the refined and super refined oils that we use today. Old fashioned is still good.
Butter is better
Butter enhances the flavours and texture of a dish, it is creamy and tastes absolutely delicious. Clarified butter is my choice for European and modern western cuisines. It also works beautifully on a pav bhaji, baking and even a pasta dish. Butter by itself has a very low smoke point so you need to blend it with another oil. However what is sold as butter by street side vendors and small restaurants are butter substitutes, which are extremely dangerous. You never know where it is coming from. The moment you put in on a tawa, it gives out a foul odour.
The frills around oils
The idea behind so-called ‘cold-pressed’ oils is that they are healthier and have more of their nutrients intact as a result of not being heated. But don’t get carried away with terms like cold pressed unless you are 100 per cent sure that it is genuine cold-pressed. A lot of the so called ‘cold-pressed oils’ in the market are nothing but regular oils where a premium is attached. Unless you are at a factory where you see the oils being extracted from coconut or olives using the cold pressed technology, stay away.
Know your oil
It is imperative to use an oil with a high smoking point so it can withstand high temperatures of cooking before reaching the smoking point. When oil smokes, it is beginning to decompose which, in turn forms acrolein, a compound that gives fat an objectionable flavour and odour. Most non-refined oil have a low smoking point. To achieve a high smoke point, things need to be done to the oil. So an extra virgin oil will burn very quickly. Ghee too has a low smoke point. Canola oil is good for dressings and dips as its neutral in taste. It can take on any flavour.
Sunflower oil has a high smoke point and is ideal for deep frying resulting in a fried product that is crispy on the outside and moist on the inside.
Cook Italian dishes like pasta, pizza and risotto in olive oil. Extra virgin which comes from the first pressing of young olives is best to drizzle on dips and salads. Lighter olive oils come from the second or more pressings of olives, but even then, it’s poorly suited for high heat cooking. Lastly, don’t let the oil intimidate you and keep you away from experimenting. Have fun with the various oils and see how it blends in your cooking. Brace yourself for bouquets or at times brickbats. For instance, a red wine, slow braised pork belly which is a classic European dish goes very well with a side dish of potatoes. But said the potatoes have to be sautéed in butter. It could be a Bengali aloo poshto or tandoori aloo roasted in ghee.
Choosing a cooking oil
Cooking oils contain saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. While saturated fat is the bad fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthy. Choose a cooking oil that contains the least saturated and higher proportion of monounsataurted and polyunsaturated fats. Five best cooking oil for Indian households include refined sunflower, groundnut, gingelly, rice bran and olive oil. The smoke point or the temperature that causes oil to start smoking is a key to oil selection. Some oils are better suited for cooking (frying) at higher temperatures than others. Oils such as olive oil and canola oil have low smoking point, hence not suitable for deep frying. Carefully monitor the oil temperature while deep frying foods like samosa, puri, bhajiya, etc. Avoid overheating as it changes the composition of the oil and produces harmful free radicals and trans fats, which is an unhealthy fat. Using a thermostat is one way to check the temperature of oil.
Strictly avoid reheating
Oil based salad dressings in Indian households are rare, but nevertheless, it is best to choose oils with good aroma and nutty flavours. Olive oil works best for salads and cold dishes. You can even use peanut oil. Coconut oil, although is favoured in some cuisines, it’s high in saturated fatty acid and hence unhealthy. However, a limited use for special occasions may help balance between taste and health. Hydrogenated vegetable oils (vanaspati) with its high trans fats is the worst type of cooking oil. No Indian kitchen is complete without ghee which is very high in saturated fats but can be used it sparingly.
Dr Bharathi A.V., PhD Nutrition. Weight Loss & Nutrition consultant, Fortis La Femme Bangalore