I asked myself this question when I was making my sourdough starter buttermilk pancakes. The recipe called for butter or a “neutral oil”, and as luck would have it I didn’t have any unsalted butter in the fridge! This is usually a staple I always have in my fridge and freezer (yes I stock up on butter whenever I go to Phoon Huat and freeze some for a rainy day).

A quick google for “neutral oil” came up with a lot of info. When you are at that point of “needing-to-know-right-now” without having to skim read and interpret a few different sites that take forever to download because the internet connection in your kitchen is patchy – you may as well stop everything and run to the store for some butter. Know what I mean?

It’s actually really simple (it wasn’t when I was in the kitchen at the time), so I thought I would share what I’ve learnt about oils.

Put simply, a neutral oil is one that does not have a strong flavour.

Examples of neutral oils are:

  • grapeseed oil
  • avocado oil 
  • canola / safflower / sunflower oil
  • light olive oil

At the other end of the spectrum, are non-neutral oils like:

  • peanut oil
  • sesame oil
  • chilli oil
  • walnut / hazlenut / almond oil
  • coconut oil

Obviously you wouldn’t be using sesame or chilli oil so much in baking (chilli sesame banana muffin anyone?) and these are less likely to be top of mind when selecting an oil for your bake. These are more likely to be used in deep frying, stir-frying, or for dipping sauces (ala Asian style dishes).

Coconut oil can be used in baking but can be a strong flavour depending on the brand. I’ve used both neutral tasting coconut oil and highly flavoured and I much preferred the neutral tasting one as it can be overpowering in some baked goods.

In the middle of the spectrum we then have your extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). As EVOO is unrefined i.e. made without any heat or chemicals, it usually has the richest flavour and works well in salad dressings and for drizzling.

So that’s it! Easy right?

Well, since we are talking about oils, we may as well touch on other things that oils can do and give you just that bit more knowledge since your here anyway…

Let’s talk about… “smoking points”. 

What is a smoking point? 

This is the temperature at which the oil stops being glossy and smooth, and starts to billow out smoke, i.e. when point at which the oil breaks down. Ever seen a chef do a Chinese stir-fry in a wok? They get the oil up to a ripping temperature so that the smoking hot oil can be used to lubricate the food, brown them and develop a flavour while at the same time keeping the crispness of the ingredients. In order to do this, they need an oil which has a high smoking point, i.e. an oil that can withstand a high temperature and is usually a neutral flavour.

Refined Oilsthese have a higher smoke point than unrefined oils. And typically a more neutral flavour. This makes them ideal for sautéing, frying and deep-frying

Unrefined Oilssuch as EVOO, have lower smoke points and generally a stronger flavour and are therefore suited to dressings and drizzles. 

For Stir-Frying: Wok cooking is fast, and relies on a thin coating of smoking-hot oil to lubricate your food—the idea being to brown those ingredients and develop their flavor while retaining a crisp, fresh crunch. You’ll want a really high smoke point oil, like peanut or safflower, for best (and safest) results.

I found this handy chart of oils and their smoking points from Serious Eats. Head over to the site for more tips and recipes, as well as the links to the two books mentioned below.

So there you go. Who knew oils were so complex. Hopefully this is helpful and will help us all be better bakers (and cooks) as we navigate our way through the kitchen.