The majority of cooking techniques we use depend on oil, either as a heat transfer medium, as a flavoring, or commonly both. Selection of an appropriate oil, the amount used and the temperature it is used at are all critical to success in cooking. There are also health and safety considerations to keep in mind.
Even the most casual cook needs at least two oils: a high temperature oil (400°F+) for deep frying, sauté and stir frying, and a flavorful oil like extra virgin olive oil for salads and low temperature cooking. If I wanted to minimize the number of oils I had on hand, I'd select Butter, Extra Virgin Oil, and Pure Olive Oil (and dark Sesame for Oriental stuff). Actually, I usually have a half dozen oils on hand.
High heat destroys oils (polyunsaturates faster than others) and the byproducts of breakdown don't taste good and are possibly carcinogenic. You can use a high temperature oil at low temperatures (sacrificing flavor) but never use an oil higher than its rated range. With flavorful oils, keep well away from the maximum or you will lose the flavor you paid extra for.
Health factors are also a consideration, but intense controversy surrounds cooking fats and oils (see our Oils, Fats and Health). The chart below serves the three leading theories including the "Anything in Moderation" theory which can select from either column. Currently the "Dissident" group is gaining favor and the "AHA" group is in decline. Many top chefs are now returning to traditional fats and oils.
Most oils are highly perishable because unsaturated fats are subject to oxidation and rancidity. All contain significant amounts of unsaturated fats (with the notable exception of coconut oil which is darned near eternal). Those high in polyunsaturates are most vulnerable and should be used within 6 months of opening while monounsaturates (Olive Oil) will last a year properly stored.
Properly stored means in a tightly sealed glass jar or oil can in a cool
dark place. You can store oils very much longer if you refrigerate them, but
all (except Safflower Oil) will solidify to some extent, particularly Olive
Oil. This is not damaging and left at room temperature for a while
they'll re-liquify. I keep dark Sesame Oil in in the refrigerator, but the
rest I use up fast enough to store at room temperature.
Here a small amount of oil is used at high temperature to quickly brown ingredients. Heat the pan moderately, add the oil and turn up the heat to bring the oil up to near its maximum temperature - but it should not smoke because that damages the oil. Then add the ingredients and leave to brown on one side. Make sure they have plenty of space and don't move them around. When done, turn over to brown the other side, again without moving (for vegetables you will have to move them around more).
Sautéing is a favorite technique for restaurant chefs because it can be very quick and requires only modest attention once you're good at it. Clearly though, sautéing takes a bit more practice than most cooking methods since you have to get the heat and timing right by experience.
A good oil to use is Pure Olive Oil. Other oils and fats can be used with appropriate care with the temperature.
Meats must be tender cuts or they will just toughen, Depending on the recipe they may be floured or not. If not, they should be dry and brushed lightly with oil to prevent sticking. If floured, they should be dried before coating. Meat should be cut thin enough to cook through (for thicker cuts, after sautéing the sauté pan can be moved directly into a hot oven to finish cooking). Vegetables should be cut so they will all cook in the same time, hard vegetables small, soft vegetables larger (or you can cut them uniform and add in stages).
In some cases more ingredients may be added at the end of sauté and the pan may be "deglazed" (by wine or flambé with brandy) to provide additional flavoring, or a sauce may be made.
Equipment: The straight sided covered pan we call a sauté
pan is not the ideal device for sautéing and would be more accurately
called a "braising pan". The ideal device for sautéing is a shallow
pan with sloping sides and very good heat conducting properties (cast iron
or aluminum core stainless or such).
Here you start by frying the main ingredients in a small amount of oil, similar to sauté or stir fry. Ingredients may be added in the process, such as starting with onion, then adding meat, garlic and ginger while continuing to fry. Once you've reached the proper state of brownness, you add a small amount water or stock (and probably a few more ingredients), cover tightly and either simmer on the stovetop, or in a preheated oven until the ingredients are tender. The recipe is often finished up on the stovetop.
The most common oils are Butter and/or Olive Oil (cutting butter with Olive Oil makes it a bit less touchy on temperature). Others can be used. The main ingredients may be cubed, or may be put in whole and rotated now and then to brown on all sides.
For Stovetop Braising, after browning put in enough water or stock to come up about 1/3 of the depth of the ingredients. Cover tightly and bring to a simmer. Check the liquid occasionally and turn the ingredients for even cooking. The pot must never run dry. Meat is done when it's fork tender.
For Oven Braising, after the browning step, put in enough water or stock to come up about 1/4 of the depth of the ingredients. Cover tightly and place it in an oven preheated to between 325°F/160°C and 350°F/175°C. Meat is done when it's fork tender.
Whether braised on the stovetop or in the oven, many dishes end up back on the stovetop for finishing. The main ingredients are often removed and the remaining ingredients made into a sauce which then accompanies the main ingredients.
Equipment: For stovetop or oven braising both Dutch ovens and
covered sauté pans are used. The Dutch shown here is oval, which I
prefer for fit to oblong things, but round ones work as well Covered
casseroles can also used if you're sure they're flameproof.
Stewing is pretty much the same as Braising except
you put in enough water or stock to cover the ingredients. Again, it starts
on the stovetop with browning, and generally ends on the stovetop with the
finish seasoning, reduction or thickening, but the middle portion can be
done either on the stovetop or in the oven.
Pan Frying is similar to sauté except more oil is likely used and the ingredients are moved and turned more often. Generally the ingredients are removed entirely from the frying pan when sufficiently browned and the oil does not become part of a sauce, but may be used to fry additional items.
Again, butter and olive oil are the most used oils but many others including lard, duck fat, goose fat (and even chicken fat if you're Jewish) are frequently used - unless you subscribe firmly to column 2 of the selection chart above.
Equipment: For pan frying, the best pan is a shallow heavy cast iron pan that has been well and properly seasoned. Some people select non-stick pans, but I'm a firm believer that all coatings become worn, torn, scratched, dissolved or burned away in short order - proper seasoning is a constantly renewable non-stick coating. Some others use non-stick for for the single purpose of frying scrambled eggs and avoid it otherwise.
Your beautiful and costly multiply stainless / aluminum / copper frying / sauté pans are not at all ideal for heavy frying. Stuff will tend to stick badly to the unseasoned surfaces and the pan will be very difficult to clean with baked on oil. A well seasoned iron pan will fry beautifully and is supposed to have a thin coating of baked on oil - but don't let it form a crust which will eventually start flaking off into the food.
Again, non-stick is not ideal as the coating degrades and may become
toxic if overheated. Most chefs detest non-stick, with one exception -
many keep a non-stick pan for scrambled eggs.
Stir frying refers to an Asian technique generally executed in a wok, a wide shallow pan of spherical shape. This technique uses a small amount of oil at high temperatures to cook ingredients very quickly preserving flavor and texture. The oil may become part of the recipe if a sauce is made.
"Stir fry" is often used in the context of Western cooking simply because it's easier to say and write than "fry stirring". Oriental stir frying can be done in a sauté pan, but it will require more oil and it may be rather cramped for ingredients that wilt down during cooking - and you can't park ingredients up on the cooler sides as you can with a wok.
All in all, Western stoves are not ideal for woks. Round bottomed versions must be placed on a ring stand which may hold them too far from the flame, and the hottest part will be around the center not at the center. I prefer wire stands to sheet metal rings, and with either I make cuts in them so they fit tight over the burner, with the wok closer to the flame.
The wok's native stove is a clay charcoal box with a round wok fitting hole at the top. These stoves are very hot and maximum heat is in the very center of the wok. Keeping this in mind, good results can still be achieved on a Western stove..
A high temperature oil of neutral flavor should be used. Preferred oils are Olive Pomace and Peanut. Because the frying time is very short and the oil will not be reused, you can choose an oil higher in polyunsaturates such as Grapeseed, Sunflower or Safflower. Actually, since my wok is seldom going to reach Chinese restaurant temperatures, my main stir fry oil is Pure Olive Oil.
Stir frying starts by heating the pan and poring in the required amount of oil (usually 1 to 2 Tablespoons), spread it up the sides and bringing it up to near smoking temperature over very high heat (or, if you don't have an infra-red surface thermometer, until you see the first wisp of smoke). Start adding ingredients per the recipe.
The key to successful stir frying is cutting and organization. Cut ingredients to uniform size and thin enough to cook through very quickly. All preparation must be done in advance because the process is too fast and needs too much attention to allow distractions. If you're having rice it should be completely cooked before starting the stir fry.
Heat the oil very hot for meat (but never smoking which damages the oil) and moderately hot if starting with garlic, ginger and the like. A good strategy is to cook any meat first at high temperature and set it aside. Fry other ingredients at a more moderate temperature, then add the meat back in when about done. Keep in mind the wok must never be overloaded.
If meat is to be cut thin or shredded, it'll be easier if you sit it in the freezer for 20 minutes or so - enough to stiffen it a bit but not freeze it. Start adding ingredients with aromatics (garlic, ginger, etc.) and then in order of cooking time. It takes a little practice to judge the timing. Ingredients should be kept in motion most of the time to assure even cooking.
With meats in particular, your results may not be quite as described in the cookbook. Your meat (particularly if formerly frozen) may exude liquid which must be boiled off, increasing stir frying time considerably. Cookbook writers are usually accustomed to restaurant type stoves with much more powerful burners than most home stoves have. In China restaurants often heat the wok so hot when they toss in the oil it bursts into flames reaching for the ceiling - not recommended for the average home kitchen.
If some ingredients are done while others are not done yet, you can keep the done ones from getting overcooked by parking them up on the cooler sides of the wok. Many recipes call for a finish steaming or braising covered with a tight fitting wok lid and/or making of a sauce just as with sauté. You can push ingredients up the sides and start a sauce in the bottom, then mix the ingredients back down into it.
Equipment: You need a wok, a shallow spherical pan which should be about 14 inches across for home use. To fit it on a Western burner you need a ring stand, and you need a wide spatula that fits the curve of the pan. You also should have a slotted spatula for lifting ingredients out and a special wok lid for finish steaming or braising.
The best available choice is usually a heavy gauge bare carbon steel wok you season well with oil. The one I have was made by Atlas Metal Spinning in San Francisco and is of very fine quality with a long wooden handle. Most woks have loop handles which must be handled with pot holders or oven mitts.
Despite this, I do most of my routine stir frying in a 13 inch multi-ply Calphalon wok, for which I purchased a stainless lid at an Asian grocery. It is certainly not as responsive as my 14 inch Atlas but is more convenient because it is just a little smaller (though perfectly adequate for cooking for two), has a small flat area in the bottom so it doesn't need a ring stand, and it's very easy to clean.
Cast iron woks are very rare, though I have one I inherited from a mad Russian (redundant, I know - there isn't any other kind). They are a bit heavy to work with and are even less responsive than the muti-ply Calphalon, but they do fry evenly.
Non-stick woks are an abomination. They cannot handle the high temperatures and abrasion they are likely to encounter. Stainless woks distribute heat very poorly (multi-ply are better) and don't take a good seasoning. Electric woks don't get hot enough and the heater element is well up from the center making a hot ring up where it should start getting cooler.
If you're stuck cooking with electricity (I shed a tear for you),
you're better off using a regular burner and a wok with a small flat area
on the bottom. Because electric burners respond very slowly, expert electric
cooks keep a front burner very high and a back burner lower so they can
shuffle the wok between the burners.
For deep frying, heat your oil very hot (but never hotter than it's rated for). Take care not to overload it with ingredients so the temperature stays very high. If it falls too low the items fried will become soggy with oil.
Take particular care with meat that has been previously frozen because it exudes a lot of water. It should be thoroughly drained and firmly patted dry with paper towels, then fried in small batches. Best to use fresh meat if you can.
Frying in small batches will take no longer than frying one big batch, but the results will be much better. In particular meat will be browned before it dries out inside.
In general, 350°F/175°C is a good starting point for most ingredients, but if you're using a 350°F fat like lard, keep it a bit lower. For some ingredients I find 410°F/210°C works better You should be applying enough heat that the oil comes back to maximum temperature by the time the current batch is fully done.
For French fried potatoes, the experts recommend "blanching" by frying at 350°F/175°C until cooked through. When ready to serve do a final browning fry at 365°F/185°C.
For donuts and similar fried bread items a fat solid at room temperature is highly preferred so they don't drip oil all over everything. Lard and tallow are best, but "Zero trans fat" vegetable shortenings are usable.
Equipment: in my experience, the Indian kadhai is the ideal deep fry vessel for home use, needing far less oil than other devices and minimizing messy splatter. Its spherical shape has a shorter radius than the Asian wok, and higher sides. These same high sides make the kadhai less suitable for Asian stir fry because you can't park stuff up on the sides. The kadhai will need a ring stand (see above under wok) and a second ring stand so you can move a hot kadhai off the stove onto the kitchen floor (or some other surface) when done frying.
The European deep fry pot and basket also work well - for frying, but you're going need a lot more oil and have a lot more splatter to clean-up, Your stove will be dripping. Do clean up right away because oil starts turning to varnish immediately and will be a lot harder to clean up in a day or two.
Of course there are now electric deep fry units, but they get rather mixed reviews so do your research before buying one. Like the European deep fry pot They do take a whole of oil, but splatter is not such a problem.
Reusing Deep Fry Oil is permissible, within limits IF it is a very durable oil. Olive-Pomace and Avocado oils are best on the vegetable side, Beef tallow on the animal side. The oil must not have been been overheated or otherwise abused, and must be filtered through a paper towel and stored carefully. See the "Oxi" column in our Smoke Point & Composition chart for durability. The lower the number the more durable the oil or fat.
Most common vegetable oils have very high oxidation numbers which means they aren't good for deep frying and quickly suffer heat rancidity (possibly carcinogenic). This is why the fast food industry, hounded by do-gooders to stop using beef tallow (very durable) rejected them, switching to partially hydrogenated vegetable oils which are similarly durable - but they are trans fats now considered far more harmful than the beef tallow they replaced. Score yet another "Fail" for the do-gooders.
When reusing oil, don't use oil fish was fried in to fry anything else because it will have a strong fish flavor. In restaurants, oil for potatoes is kept separate, but for the limited reuse in a home kitchen I don't consider this at all necessary. My rule is to use durable oil and no more than 4 times over the period of a month, discarding it when either limit has been reached, or if it has darkened substantially.
To store oil for reuse, let it be hot long enough after removing
ingredients to make sure it has no moisture (there should be no bubbling
or popping. Filter it through a white paper towel set in a wire strainer
to remove all food particles (you may need several towels if debris in
the oil clogs them). Store in a clean tightly sealed glass jar.
Roasting usually refers to cooking birds and large pieces of meat in an oven at between 350°F and 400°F. The main source of oils is the fat contained in the bird or meat, but oil, usually Butter but sometimes Lard, Bacon Fat or Olive Oil may be brushed on, usually at the beginning or after turning.
Large vegetables such as squash and eggplants may also be oven roasted, generally in a shallow pan or on a grill. If cut, they will be brushed with butter or oil.Roasting is now also used to cook small cut vegetables that were formerly fried, particularly potatoes, with little oil or fat. First they are cut to size, then tumbled with oil to coat, and roasted on a baking sheet in the oven. Note: if you grease the pan with lard or tallow rather than vegetable oil it will be much easier to clean.
For larger cuts, 3/8 inch or so of water may be placed in the pan to cook the potatoes, but all will be evaporated by time roasting is done. Temperatures are not that hot so moderate temperature oils can be used.
Sometimes strips of bacon or lard are draped over the meat and the fat that renders from them keeps the meat coated and moist. Once fat starts to render from the meat itself it may be used for basting (brushing or dripping) the meat itself. Always follow the instructions in the recipe unless you have a very good reason not to.
Equipment: For large birds and meat roasts a special roasting pan
is used, a shallow pan which is fitted with either a "V" rack or a flat rack
in it to keep the item roasted above the rendered fat and juices (and possible
vegetables). Deep, covered roasting pans are also used, although these are
somewhat out of style right now. A good meat thermometer with a long probe
is a must so you can measure the temperature inside the roast to see if it's
safely done. Even better is one with a cable so the probe can be left in the
meat while it roasts in the oven with the display continuously visible.
There are two basic categories of baking: baking dough products like breads, cookies, cakes, pie crusts and the like, and baking casseroles (known as "hot dish" in the U.S. Midwest). Baking casseroles may involve no more oil than a rubbing of butter on the inside of the casserole dish to minimize sticking, and perhaps some oily cheese on top. On the other hand, some ingredients may be tumbled with oil before being added to the casserole, and others may be fried on the stove top before being included.
Baking breads, cookies, cakes, pie crusts and similar items always involves fats, generally fats solid at room temperature called "shortening", to provide a pleasant texture when cooled. Your choices here are generally Lard, Butter and Vegetable Shortenings (though some people have successfully (for certain values of success) used oils for some baking). For flavor and texture Lard is considered best, preferably "leaf lard" if you can get it.
People trying to avoid saturated fats turned to vegetable shortening and ended up with a trans fats problem that is a lot worse. "Zero trans fats" vegetable shortenings are now available, but are, of course, high in artificial saturated fats - they're vegetable saturated fats though, which makes some people (especially people at Cargill and ADM) feel better about them.
Baking dough products is highly critical in measurement, ingredients,
temperature and timing, so follow the recipe with exacting care and use a
timer with a loud alarm if you're likely to get distracted.
Salads is where to use those "virgin", "cold pressed" or "unrefined" oils that are high in flavor but have a smoke point too low for frying. The run-away favorite here is Extra Virgin Olive Oil - superb flavor and healthy composition both.
The disadvantage of olive oil is that it solidifies in the refrigerator because it is low in polyunsaturated fats. This does no damage, just take your dressing out of the fridge 20 minutes before you need it.
Commercial salad dressings favor Safflower Oil because it is so high in polyunsaturated fats it's still liquid in the refrigerator. This sacrifices flavor compared to Olive, so they add more flavoring ingredients to make up for that. Some theories hold that polyunsaturates aren't good for you but at low salad temperatures the risk is a lot less.
When making salads, you should spin the ingredients dry and then coat with oil before you add vinegar. Oil will not properly coat ingredients that are wet with water or vinegar. In any case, don't apply dressing until you're about ready to serve or the salad will wilt.
You really need a salad spinner to get salad greens dry enough for the oil
to coat properly. The French wire basket on a chain and the French wire
basket with a toy top pump action are absolutely worthless (and may be
extinct). Many plastic spinners are made that work pretty well, most with
a crank action, but if you've got your wits about you you'll get an Oxo
(illustrated). You also need a couple jars or bottles to shake dressings up in.
Cooking with oil at high temperature is dangerous and requires close attention. Connie's brand new stove was a lot hotter than her old one, and she turned her back on a pot of oil heating for deep frying. This splash of aluminum (once a sliding door) is all that remains of Connie's luxury home.
Much more serious is the possibility of severe personal injury from
spilled oil or oil that splatters from contact with water. Oils are
essential, but so is care.