oil change in the kitchen?


in his column 'the curious cook' harold mcgee has you look at your oil consumption to the burning point, so to speak. mcgee is of course the man who changed science and lore in the kitchen with a fabulous book on food and cooking published some decades ago. i have owned many a copy, they always disappeared, curiously, even with my 'exlibris' attached inside the cover. no matter, mcgee stayed in my kitchens over the years, for research, rescue and remedy alike. my first mayonnaise curdled, eggs blew up in a new micro wave, water boiled quicker in manhattan than in the adirondacks. he had the answer. i used his book often, simply to discern fiction from factoid, always ending up with true mcgee facts.
his new book, 'keys to good cooking' reiterates many a wisdom, this time with the home cook in mind, and so we have it in today's times, in his word an "oil change" in the kitchen.
'i didn't know that', the ancient laugh-in routine, best describes what few knew then, and some might not be aware of now. in simple terms: there's different oils for different notions. so, what kind of oil do you have and what do you do with it in your kitchen? is it put to use for high temperature frying or do you want to taste the richness of an unrefined, green, extra virgin, cold pressed, unfiltered, vintage, seventy-five dollars a quart olive oil? you likely wouldn't use the latter for frying turkey, nor would you use a highly refined oil on your delicate, hand picked, tender garden lettuce. i'll explain: refined, extra light oils typically are without flavor, but have a very high smoke point. a smoke point is what it says: the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke, in fact burn. you would use these to do southern chicken tenders, or french fries, or for those deep frying moments when you want a tempura. refined peanut, grape seed or safflower oil would be best suited for frying at such high temperatures, like 480 to 520 degrees. oh, and 'refined' does not at all imply civilized, but refers to the filtered, the processed, strained oils and those oils must not have any aroma, or scented substance left, neither to taste nor to burn. they've been factory heated, 'refined' to do the deep-fry, the sheer heat, the crisping, the crunch you expect from a perfect tempura, or that chicken thigh you lust for. 
yes, and what of the 'other' oil, that, unrefined, 'virgin', even extra, and viraginous, fabulously scented, peppery and poignant, first pressed, point eight acidics, crushed between stone, stored in ovoid and ancient crockery vessels, in dark, virtually vulgate cellars.


i have it from certain cooks, would hand over their kitchens to draw on such sacred vaults. precious oil indeed, if you can afford it. ceed it wisely to your shelf, whisk it in a mayonnaise, or, do a drizzle on sun-toast, or on portland loafs hot from the oven. you might blend it with sherry and salt, a small spoon of mustard from meaux - 'oil from a spendthrift, vinegar from a judge, mustard from a counselor, salt from a miser and  a mad man to shake it all up' - to dress your bib and mâche salads. have it spooned onto cold meats, like yesterday's roast, brushed on broccolini, cauliflower or brussel sprouts. you can count on the oil's fragrance, that luxurious scent, the balm, redolent of ripe olives.
all comes at a price and all is by no means gold. california olive oils taste entirely different from a ligurian, of course. but oils vary tremendously even if grown within individual regions. blends are often the less of quality, especially those shipping in large tankers, docking at various ports. for those truly fortunate (having been good all year) an extra virgin oil might even be of vintage. still, tasting and understanding, it becomes elementary, six dollar oil can't compare to one priced tenfold, extra virgin and all.

matsutake roasted in canola oil

yes, and for all the many in between needs, neither fry nor dressing, but sautéing, or low temperature roasting, a six dollar oil works splendidly. for that matter any unrefined oil, like walnut, almond or hazel, or those from the peanut gallery, might be used for a mid range kitchen affair. it is veritably true that fragrance and taste of such oils diminishes rapidly with increased temperatures. i presume that your tongue notes and rejects oils stale and rancid, as well as those simply overheated or defective to begin with.
for further reading may i suggest to check out mcgee's column, which inspired my blog and can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/dining/17curious.html?_r=1