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Know Your Oils

Choosing the right oil will make all the difference

A few flat shares ago, I was curled up on the sofa watching TV in our kitchen/living/dining room (as is the cramped reality of so many overpriced London rentals), when suddenly the room started to fill with a thick, billowing, eye-stinging smoke.

‘EEK OPEN THE WINDOWS!’ cried one of my flatmates, who had emerged from his room ten minutes earlier to start cooking dinner. He had told me he was making a vegetable stir fry.

As we frantically fanned the smoke out of the room with magazines and newspapers, my flatmate expressed his surprise: ‘I just turned my back for a second to cut some garlic, next thing I know the sesame oil is smoking like crazy!’

Ah. It all made sense to me.

Unbeknownst to my friend, he had erroneously decided to do his wok cooking with sesame oil. I completely get the thinking behind this: it’s a liquid oil and it smells absolutely delicious, so surely it would inject its glorious aroma into ingredients through cooking. The problem is that toasted sesame oil has a really low smoke point, so it is generally unsuitable for cooking at high temperatures.

So when should you use sesame oil? And if you can’t stir fry with sesame oil, what should you use instead? Behold, a guide to our top three oils used in Asian cookery.

Canola/rapeseed oil

Canola/rapeseed oil is our go-to for all purpose cooking and marinating. Not only does it have a high smoke point, which makes it a terrific option for a smoking hot wok, it is also extremely versatile because of its neutral flavour. As an extra bonus, canola oil is low in (bad!) saturated fat and high in healthy monounsaturated fats, which can help reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease. If you come across a bottle generically labelled as ‘vegetable oil’, as in the picture above, check the ingredients list on the back because canola/rapeseed oil is often marketed in this way.

Sesame oil

As mentioned above, roasted/toasted sesame oil is not a good match for high-temperature cooking techniques like stir frying and deep frying. It will smoke and burn at a lower temperature, which will leave an acrid taste in your food. To get the best out of nutty and aromatic sesame oil, stir it into sauces and stir fries when you’ve turned off the heat, use it as a base for dipping sauces, and add it to ice cream for a deep, rich flavour like we do in our cookbook. Note that you may one day cross paths with the much rarer ‘light’ sesame oil, a refined and flavourless oil that is quite a few shades lighter in colour than the darker, fragrant sesame oil. This one can withstand higher temperatures for cooking.

Peanut Oil

We have to make a special shout out to peanut (or ‘groundnut’) oil, which is traditionally used in Chinese and Southeast Asian cooking. Refined peanut oil has a high smoke point, and it can also impart a subtle but pleasant aromatic flavour to food. For these reasons, refined peanut oil is ideal for both stir-frying and deep-frying. For the latter technique, aim for a temperature of 180-190 degrees celsius for perfect golden crispiness. Peanut oil is readily available in Chinese supermarkets, and many conventional supermarkets are now also selling it as ‘groundnut’ oil. Note that unrefined peanut oil (e.g. toasted/roasted peanut oil) is unsuitable for high-temperature cooking, as it has a low smoke point. Like toasted sesame oil, unrefined roasted peanut oil is best reserved for seasoning and drizzling at the end of the cooking process.

A Note on Olive Oil

You may have heard that olive oil is wholly unsuitable for stir frying because it has a low smoke point.

This is both true and untrue, depending on which type of olive oil is in question.

We wouldn’t ever use extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) for stir-frying: this first press of oil from olives does not undergo any further refinement, so it has a very low smoke point and a very strong aroma.

While this fruity aromatic oil works beautifully with breads and drizzled onto salads, it is at odds with Asian cookery flavours. Our ultra Chinese Dad finds the aroma of EVOO particularly off-putting! However, bottles of olive oil with extra tags like ‘mild’ and ‘light’, which are much lighter in colour than EVOO, have been refined further. This gives them a higher smoke point and also removes the signature flavour of the virgin varieties. Whilst we would still much sooner reach for canola and peanut oil when stir frying, mild/light olive oil can be used for light sautéing.

Hopefully you can use this guide to help you select the best oil for your Asian kitchen pursuits. Let us know if you have any other questions!

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