Few ingredients can simultaneously claim to be wallflowers and essential cooking staples, but neutral oils fall into that category.
Neutral oils are exactly what they sound like: oils with little to no discernible flavour. They are a staple of cooking and baking, and chances are you already have at least one, or several, on your shelves. Here’s what you need to know about them.
What are they?
Neutral oils are made from nuts, grains, seeds or fruits. Among the most common varieties you’ll find are canola, vegetable (typically a blend that may include corn, canola, soybean and sunflower oils), avocado, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower and peanut.
These types of oils can be extracted mechanically, by pressing the source food in an expeller, or chemically with solvents, Jennifer Cook wrote. After that, the oils are often refined with chemicals and high temperatures, which creates uniform colour, shelf stability and their characteristic neutral flavour.
Keep in mind that anything labelled as cold-pressed, unrefined, virgin or extra-virgin is unlikely to be neutral in flavour. Olive oil and coconut oil are prime examples, though you can find more neutral refined versions of these (“cooking” and “extra-light” olive oils are common).
Peanut and avocado oils can also go either way depending on how they’re processed.
Some nut oils, such as walnut or hazelnut, retain the flavour of their source, so they are best used in recipes where you want that to come through.
When should you use them?
As you’d expect, neutral oils are ideal when you don’t even want to know they’re there. “In highly seasoned food, the characteristic flavour of a fat may not be noticeable, but in delicate foods it is,” Shirley O. Corriher writes in CookWise.
Sweet: Baking is a prime example, as many cakes, muffins and quick breads rely on oils for tender, moist texture. While some recipes are designed to take advantage of the characteristic flavour of more assertive oils, such as Adam Liaw’s orange cake with olive oil, neutral oils are generally better for baked goods, especially in classic yellow cakes, such as this vanilla sponge (pictured above), or muffins or cupcakes.
Anything labelled as cold-pressed, unrefined, virgin or extra-virgin is unlikely to be neutral in flavour.
Savoury: The choice of oil can make or break some savoury applications. A neutral oil is preferable in something like a homemade mayonnaise or aioli, where it is just one of a few uncooked ingredients with little to hide behind.
Similarly, canola oil makes for an appropriate blank canvas for other sauces and condiments, such as Sichuan chilli oil.
Why else are they important?
Neutral oils deserve a place in your pantry for another big reason: their high smoke points. All fats, including oils, have a smoke point, the point at which they will begin to produce smoke.
Specifically, it’s when anything in the oil − fats, proteins, sugars, other organic material − starts to interact with oxygen and burn, says Joseph Provost, a chemistry and biochemistry professor who co-wrote The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking.
The refining process removes a lot of the compounds prone to burning, which is especially helpful when it comes to searing or frying. What happens when your oil burns? It tastes and smells bad, that’s what.
Here’s a rough guide to the smoke points of common refined neutral oils, largely pulled from a list shared by food scientist and author Robert Wolke:
In addition to the higher smoke points and unassuming flavour, many neutral oils have something else going for them: their relative affordability. Canola and vegetable oils are ideal for recipes where scale is paramount, such as when you’re using large quantities for frying or baking.
Other options, such as avocado and even peanut oils, can cost several times more and are best used in more sparing amounts if you’re concerned with budget.
The Washington Post
The best recipes from Australia’s leading chefs straight to your inbox.