This month, Tasting Table celebrates all things salad. Keep your cool with us.
From almond and avocado to olive and sesame, the many oil options on the market can seem more like a salad menu than a single ingredient. We're here to help you gain a smooth understanding of oil varieties, as well as their many vinegar counterparts.
Not all oils are created equal. Some are better for dressing a salad, while others are sturdy enough to fry a batch of homemade chips. One important variable is the smoke point. That's the temperature at which the oil breaks down and turns to smoke. Besides making your food taste badly burned, smoky oil gives off a nasty smell that will linger in your kitchen. Butter has a low smoke point, which is why you wouldn't deep-fry a chicken wing in a vat of bubbling butter. Instead, you'd use a high-smoke-point oil such as peanut or canola. Save more delicate oils like extra-virgin olive oil and other unrefined oils for finishing a dish.
Another reason to opt for one over the other is flavor. Use neutral oils like canola or grapeseed when you want your ingredients to shine. You may want one with a lingering flavor if it's not going to be entirely cooked out. Sesame oil is great in stir-fries and dipping sauces, especially in Chinese dishes. For the classic taste of olive oil, opt for extra virgin or virgin—those haven't been refined, a process that removes the savory olive taste.
Oil is a basic ingredient, but leave it to the chefs to spruce it up. Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable steeps one vanilla bean per two cups of oil overnight and drizzles it over chilled corn soup to highlight the sweet, summery flavors. And at Narcissa in New York City, a verdant blended basil oil finishes the cucumber-jalapeño broth in the tuna tartare.
At St. Louis restaurant Niche, which uses primarily Missouri ingredients, chef Gerard Craft makes vinegar in-house and sources local canola oil. Though generally "mass produced to fill up fryers," executive chef Nate Hereford says it "tastes like the Midwest." At Niche, he uses the oil in everything from cakes and vinaigrettes to a new version of savory tea.
Oil is only half of the story though. The other is all those bottles of different vinegars in your pantry. If you've ever gotten a whiff of a long-neglected open bottle of wine, you'll recognize that vinegar comes from alcohol fermentation—be it wine, beer or just straight methanol. It's often used as a source of acid to balance a dish and cut through rich fats, which is why mayonnaise-based sauces tend to include a spoonful of mustard or vinegar. Distilled white vinegar is the most common of the bunch. It's also the cheapest, making it the go-to vinegar for pickling. Apple cider vinegar is mild and slightly sweet. It's often used in vegan baking and, when diluted, is even a refreshing drink with possible health benefits. Malt vinegar, which is made similarly to beer, is often partnered with classic pub food like fish-and-chips—but try it out in your next marinade.
Varieties like red wine vinegar and Champagne vinegar are made from the same grapes as their corresponding wines. These, along with sherry vinegar, are best in marinades and salad dressings, where a bit of flavor is always welcome. Rice wine vinegar is common in Asian cuisine and pairs well with sesame oil.
With enough time and patience, you can make your own vinegar at home, but upgrading the store-bought kind with your own infusions can be more fun. Just ask Leah Cohen, chef/owner of Pig & Khao. She takes banana vinegar (brought over from the island in the Philippines where her family lives) and infuses it with garlic and chiles before serving it with smoked sardines at brunch.
Now that you're armed with a multitude of oil and vinegar tricks, you're ready to become the slickest cook on the block.