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Fats, Oils and Fish and Seafood

Choosing the Right Oil to Cook Fish Can Make a Difference

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Cooking fish
Nathan Blaney/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

When you want to saute, fry, broil or even marinate a fish or a piece of seafood, which fat or oil do you use? Chances are that whatever it is, you use the same one for nearly every recipe.

You will be a better cook if you break this habit. Selecting a cooking oil that fits your recipe or the way you are cooking can not only elevate the flavor, but can also dramatically alter the way the fish cooks.

Start with the Saute. This is where you pour a little oil in a hot pan and quickly cook the fish over high heat. Cooking in a wok is very similar -- the key is not much oil, and very high heat.

Well that heat will ruin a great many oils -- notably olive oil, which has a low smoke point (you never want your oil smoking, as once this happens it will turn acrid). It is far better to use a high smoke-point oil when cooking at very high temperatures; if you want that olive oil taste, drizzle it on at the end.

Which oils to use with very high heat? My top choice is grapeseed oil, but as it can be expensive, simple canola oil is an excellent second choice. If you want to go through the step of clarifying butter (removing the solids), you can use clarified butter for sauteeing, too. If you are determined to use olive oil here, use extra light olive oil.

What about frying? Here is where you can use your olive oil, but don't use extra-virgin olive oil here, as it is too expensive and with frying you are using a lot more oil. I am defining frying as cooking in enough oil so that half of the piece of fish is under the oil as it cooks. Best choices for this are regular olive oil for Mediterranean recipes, vegetable oil for American dishes, and peanut oil for Asian food.

Frying is also where you can use lard or butter.

If you are deep-frying, or submerging the fish or seafood in oil, use the same thing as you would in a regular fry. I like canola oil, as it is neutral-tasting and inexpensive.

Grilling, broiling or baking will often require that you coat the fish in oil before cooking; this helps conduct heat from the burners through the fish. I almost always use extra-virgin olive oil here, although you could use anything, really.

What about a marinade? Again, I use extra-virgin olive oil, because it will stay liquid in the fridge. You could use any vegetable oil, however. This is also a good place for specialty oils.

Specialty oils also have a limited place in fish and seafood cooking. The two I use most often are walnut oil and sesame oil. I will sometimes use walnut oil in French dishes and I use sesame oil a lot in Asian and Mexican recipes. I use them mostly for flavor, mixing them into the main oil in the beginning of cooking and drizzling small amounts onto the food at the end.

Two final things to remember: Never use flavored oils for cooking, as the flavor will disappear in the best-case scenario, turn rancid at the worst-case scenario. Save these oils for after the cooking is done.

The second thing to remember is that the less refined an oil is, the lower its smoke point. So never use unrefined oils for sauteeing or other high heating preparations. What's high heat? In this case, 350 degrees.

Bottom line: My go-to oils are:

  • Grapeseed oil for a high heat saute
  • Canola oil for frying or deep-frying
  • Butter for a gentle saute
  • Olive oil for marinating or coating fish before grilling
  • Sesame oil for Asian recipes

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