Food & Drink

When You Should Cook With Oil, Not Butter

olive oil and butter
Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Other than our dear friend bacon, no ingredient has a greater ability to improve a dish than butter. But because each cooking fat has its specific strengths and weaknesses, butter should not be used to cook everything. In fact, it should be primarily reserved for cooking eggs, caramelizing onions, and finishing proteins or composed dishes. 

So we asked Perry Santanachote, our recipes editor, and Kevin Meehan, the LA-based chef behind Kali Dining, to tell us which oils to use for various dishes instead of just patting everything down in the churned dairy of the gods. Time to step away from the stick.

searing steak
Drew Swantak/Thrillist

Searing proteins

Butter's weakness is its low smoke point, so when searing a fat steak, it's necessary to use a fat that can handle greater heat. Olive oil is a bad choice because it also has a relatively low smoke point. Perry suggests either safflower or peanut oil, while Kevin likes to use grapeseed oil.

Sauteing vegetables

Extra-virgin olive oil is the move according to Perry, but not just because of the taste and mouthfeel. There are actually health benefits from cooking vegetables with olive oil that far outweigh boiling them in water, as shown in a study presented by the not-at-all-biased folks at Olive Oil Times.

deep fried chicken drumstick
Anthony Humphreys/Thrillist

Deep-frying

Obviously no one except Paula Deen is tempted to deep-fry things in butter, and olive oil is an equally poor choice, but there's an array of different oils that work for these purposes. Perry suggests peanut oil, and although Kevin hates the mouthfeel of peanut oil, he does concede that its high smoke point, neutral flavor, and (most importantly) low price make it an appropriate choice for deep-frying (though he personally endorses grapeseed oil).

Stir-frying

High smoke point is a necessity for stir-frying meats or vegetables, so olive oil is out of the picture. According to Perry, the best oil for the job is high-heat-tolerance safflower oil. It's made from the seeds of the safflower plant, which has historically been used as an alternative to saffron and was hence dubbed "bastard saffron" in Europe. It has a wealth of health benefits and is highly recommended over ambiguous “vegetable oil."

Roasting

“When you're roasting vegetables with oil, they're going to end up kind of greasy, so for health reasons I prefer olive oil,” says Perry. Some people advise against this because of olive oil's low smoke point, but Perry says this shouldn't be an issue unless the oven temperature rises over 450.

tuna poke
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Asian cooking

Kevin's wife is Japanese, so he cooks plenty of Asian dishes at home. The move is to start with a neutral oil like grapeseed, then finish foods with sesame oil. “It has the strongest flavor profile of any other oil. I drizzle it on top of foods like fried rice at the end of cooking or make a sesame salad dressing. Also, tuna poke isn't tuna poke without sesame oil,” says Kevin.

Making salad dressings

Obviously butter in salad dressing is a pretty weird move, and EVOO is probably your go-to in a simple oil-and-vinegar dressing. But the forward flavor of olive oil can be too overpowering when other elements are incorporated. Kevin suggests using grapeseed oil in dressings like Caesar or honey ranch.

ravioli
Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Finishing pastas

Butter can add an element of richness to Italian dishes at the last minute, but it isn't always the best choice. And neither is EVOO. Perry uses truffle oil on dishes like pasta, roasted garlic, and risotto. Although some bottles can be exorbitantly expensive, there are still affordable options out there that use more common truffles or even artificial flavoring.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He will soon be the owner of a moderately priced bottle of truffle oil. Follow him to finishing touches at @Dannosphere.