While vegetable oils represent the most common option for commercial frying, the choice is typically one based on cost rather than quality. At home, there is nearly always a more flavorsome, complex alternative to vegetable oil, a term that covers a host of plant-based oils including sunflower, soybean and canola. Vegetable oil's main advantage is its higher smoke point, so cooks should take care to choose a substitute capable of fulfilling its purpose at higher temperatures if necessary.
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Vegetable oils are the least desirable to use in salad dressings since they typically have a neutral, even bland, flavor that adds little to the final product. In this case, replacing corn or soybean oil, for example, with olive oil constitutes an automatic upgrade. Use a cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil mixed with vinegar or fresh-squeezed citrus juice for a light, fruity dressing, sticking to the standard ratio or 3 parts oil to 1 part acid. For Asian-inspired salads, sesame oil adds a nutty, smoky flavor, as do other nut oils such as walnut and flaxseed. For the clean, crisp Oriental carrot-ginger dressing, olive or sesame oil provides a light, unobtrusive background that complements the grated ingredients' natural flavors.
Since many recipes start with the sautéing of aromatics or browning of meats, choosing the right oil sets the tone for the subsequent dish, with vegetable oil by no means the leading option. Since sautéing involves a short stint over a high heat, some nut oils such as flaxseed have too low a smoke point to fulfill the task, so the best substitutes if not using vegetable oil are fats with a higher smoke point, such as peanut oil and sesame oil. Butter, too, adds a glorious mouthfeel to onions, garlic and other aromatics, since it foams rather than shimmers, but take care to stir it consistently to keep it from burning.
Deep Fat Frying
Deep-frying at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for providing a crisp, crunchy exterior while the inside of the food, whether it is poultry or vegetables, is allowed to steam. While vegetable oil is the go-to oil for commercial frying, alternative oils can work magic with the flavor. The higher temperatures involved rule out some olive oils such as extra-virgin as a substitute, although pure olive oil remains an option. For the most intense flavor, melted shortening or lard get the best out of potatoes and meat, but would overwhelm the subtle sweetness of shrimp or fish, in which case olive oil or peanut oil is more appropriate.
Olive oil adds a delightful fruity flavor to baked breads or cakes and has less saturated fat than butter or shortening. Try olive oil with Italian biscotti or Mediterranean fruit cakes, or to give a nutty finish to savory loaves. Borrowing a trick from vegan cooks, who avoid butter or shortening in their baking, you can also bake with fruit juice or compote instead of vegetable oil for a soft, moist texture. A cup of apple sauce or cranberry juice will bind the bread or cake mix. Yogurt, too, contains enough lipids to substitute for vegetable oil. For cookies, shortbreads and biscuits, shortening or lard provides a direct replacement for vegetable oil, enhancing the flavor in the high baking temperatures, but watch out for the overall salt content.