Pantry Breakdown: Oils, Vinegars, + More

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The world of vinegars and oils can be a confusing one. When I started out in the kitchen, I wasn’t sure what was actually necessary and what people were just telling me to buy. The arsenal I have today allows me to create just about any recipe that calls for an oil or vinegar. While I don’t reach for all of these all of the time, they are mainstays in my pantry. Here is a breakdown of the products, why they ought to be in your pantry, and what they’re used for.

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THE OILS:

Olive Oil: This oil is valued for its flavour and is an absolute necessity in your pantry. It has a low smoke point, which means it will burn at a lower temperature, and so olive oil is best used over a moderate heat.
There is a huge range when it comes to olive oils in terms of quality and price. It’s a good idea to have two on-hand: a quality extra-virgin olive oil for uncooked things like salad dressings or drizzling over cooked food, and then a cheaper olive oil to use when cooking it with a lot of other ingredients and the flavour won’t be as strong.

The difference between extra-virgin olive oil and regular olive oil comes down to the process. Both products are simply the oil that come from olive trees. The divide is the process used to extract the oil, the additives, and the oil’s level of free oleic acid*. The oils can differ dramatically in their taste and quality.

 

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: It is an unrefined oil and the highest-quality oil you can buy. As such, there are specific standards the oil must meet to receive the label of “extra virgin.” Because of the way extra virgin olive oil is made, it retains more of the true olive taste and has a lower level of oleic acid than other olive oils. It also contains more of the natural vitamins and minerals found in olives. Extra virgin olive oil is considered unrefined because it is not treated with chemicals or altered by temperature. It contains no more than 1% oleic acid and typically has a golden-green colour and a distinctive flavour with a light peppery finish. You can absolutely cook with extra virgin olive oil, but you should save the good stuff for dipping bread, dressings, dips, cold dishes, and  use the less expensive stuff for cooking and baking.

Pure Olive Oil: Olive oil may be labeled as simply olive oil or pure olive oil, and this is all regular olive oil. It is typically a bend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil (where heat and/or chemicals are used in the process of extracting oil and removing flaws from the fruit). Pure olive oil is lower in quality than extra virgin olive oil, with a lighter colour, a more neutral flavour, and oleic acid content measuring 3-4%. This kind of regular olive oil is an all-purpose cooking oil.

Light Olive Oil: The word “light” does not refer to a lower caloric count. Instead, it is clever marketing that is used to describe the oil’s lighter flavour. Light olive oil is a refined oil, which a neutral taste and a higher smoke point. It can be used for baking, sauteing, grilling, and frying.

Can You Substitute? Yes. If a recipe calls for olive oil, you can use extra virgin olive oil or regular olive oil. It is up to your personal preference. Both can be used in baking and cooking, but keep in mind their different smoke points.

* Free oleic acid indicates the extent to which fat has broken down into fatty acids. Olive oil is graded by its level of free oleic acid, or acidity.

Grapeseed Oil: This is an ideal high-heat and neutral tasting oil. It’s perfect for roasting, high-heat cooking, wok cooking, deep-frying, baking, and any dish where you want a very neutral-flavoured oil so you don’t really taste it. Other options include canola oil, sunflower, peanut oil, rapeseed, corn, and safflower. Many recipes will call for vegetable oil, but technically even an olive oil can be considered a vegetable oil since it comes from a plant. However, what it really refers to are oils that have a higher smoke point and a neutral flavour, which makes them a popular choice for high-heat cooking and for dishes where you don’t want a distinctive oil taste. Because of their lack of taste, these oils are an excellent choice for deep-frying and baking.

While most vegetable oils are inexpensive and suitable for every-day cooking, there are a few (like my choice of grapeseed)that come with a higher price tag.

Coconut Oil: This is an ideal oil for roasting, popping popcorn on the stovetop, granola, sauteing, curries, baking, and dishes where you don’t mind having a nutty flavour.

Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of coconuts, and is solid at room temperature, unlike most other cooking oils. It has a low smoking point, so avoid using coconut oil over high heat. Coconut oil is used in a lot of vegan dishes to replace animal fats.

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THE VINEGARS:

Balsamic Vinegar: Traditionally from specific regions of Italy, and the highest quality must follow rigid specifications from Modena, Italy, the birthplace of balsamic vinegar. It is commonly aged, and the aging vessels lend additional character and depth (which can sometimes drive up the price). Culinary uses include sweet (like balsamic glazed strawberries, panna cotta, and balsamic reductions for desserts) and savory (glazed salmon). The older the vinegar, the greater the nuances in flavour and the more likely it can stand alone and is usually added after cooking as opposed to a marinade or sauce.

Red Wine Vinegar: This vinegar is a favourite because of its nutritive properties (found both in consumption and in topical use). It’s normally unpasteurized, and not commonly heated so as to preserve the enzymatic activity. Red wine vinegar is ideal for adding a delicious zing to dressings, marinades, and vegetables. I most frequently use mine to make a mignonette for oysters!

NOT PICTURED:
White Vinegar: This is the cheapest of vinegars and most widely available. I like to make homemade pickles with white vinegar, but it also has great uses in the home as a disinfectant, a natural pesticide, laundry agent, and drain cleaner).

Apple Cider Vinegar: Also known simply as cider vinegar, is made from fermented apple cider. Filtered and pasteurized cider vinegar is clear and light brown in colour, whereas unfiltered and unpasteurized versions (frequently sold in health food stores) can be darker and cloudier. Apple cider vinegar has a sour flavour with hints of fruity sweetness. It’s ideal in full-flavoured marinades, stews, chutneys, and dishes with apples, pears, cabbage, onions, ginger, garlic, or pork.

Rice Vinegar: An essential vinegar for Asian cooking! It’s used in most dipping sauces, and has a lighter and sweeter flavour than other vinegar.

 

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These two are not oils, nor are they vinegar. But in my kitchen, they are absolutely necessary!

Maple Syrup: I reach for high quality maple syrup (from an old Quebecois roommate!) to use as a natural sweetener in lots of sauces, marinades, and baking. Maply syrup contains fewer calories and has a higher concentration of minerals when compared to honey. It is also an excellent source of manganese and a good source of zinc.

Tahini: This delicious paste is made from toasted ground hulled sesame seeds. It’s commonly used in North African, Armenian, Greek, Israeli, Iranian, and Turkish cuisines. It’s also a major component in dishes such as hummus and baba ghanoush. I use it as a base for sauces (often with garlic, lemon and maple syrup).

What are your oil + vinegar staples in your pantry? What am I missing? Let me know in a comment down below!

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