Few ingredients can simultaneously claim to be wallflowers and essential cooking staples, but neutral oils fall into that category.
What they are
Neutral oils are made from nuts, grains, seeds or fruits. Among the most common varieties you’ll find are corn, canola (derived from rapeseed), vegetable (typically a blend that may include corn, canola, soybean and sunflower oils), avocado, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower and peanut.
These types of oils can be extracted mechanically, by pressing the source food in an expeller, or chemically with solvents, Jennifer Cook wrote in a guide to picking cooking oils for Consumer Reports in The Washington Post. After that, the oils are often refined with chemicals and high temperatures, which creates uniform color, shelf stability and their characteristic neutral flavor.
Keep in mind that anything labeled as cold-pressed, unrefined, virgin or extra-virgin is unlikely to be neutral in flavor. Olive oil and coconut oil are prime examples, though you can find more neutral refined versions of these. (“Cooking” and “extra-light” olive oils are common.) Peanut and avocado oils can also go either way depending on how they’re processed. Some nut oils, such as walnut or hazelnut, retain the flavor of their source, so they are best used in recipes where you want that to come through.
When to use them
As you’d expect, neutral oils are ideal when you don’t even want to know they’re there. “In highly seasoned food, the characteristic flavor of a fat may not be noticeable, but in delicate foods it is,” Shirley O. Corriher writes in “CookWise.”
Baking is a prime example, as many cakes, muffins and quick breads rely on oils for tender, moist texture. While some recipes are designed to take advantage of the characteristic flavor of more assertive oils, such as Strawberry and Pistachio Olive Oil Cake, neutral oils are in generally better for baked goods, especially in classic yellow cakes, such as with Tres Leches Cake or Blueberry Poke Cake, or cupcakes.
The choice of oil can make or break some savory applications. A neutral oil is preferable in something like a homemade mayonnaise or aioli, where it is just one of a few uncooked ingredients with little to hide behind. Similarly, canola oil makes for an appropriate blank canvas for other sauces and condiments, including S’chug, Sichuan Chile Oil and Jalapeño Oil.
Why else they’re important
Neutral oils deserve a place in your pantry for another big reason: Their high smoke points. All fats, including oils, have a smoke point, the point at which they will begin to produce smoke. Specifically, it’s when anything in the oil — fats, proteins, sugars, other organic material — starts to interact with oxygen and burn, says Joseph Provost, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at the University of San Diego who co-wrote “The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking.”
The refining process removes a lot of the compounds prone to burning, which is especially helpful when it comes to searing or frying. What happens when your oil burns? It tastes and smells bad, that’s what.
Here’s a rough guide to the smoke points of common refined neutral oils, largely pulled from a list shared by food scientist and author Robert Wolke in The Post in 2007:
- Canola, 400 degrees
- Grapeseed, 420
- Sunflower, 440
- Corn, 450
- Peanut, 450
- Vegetable oil blends, 450
- Extra-light olive, 468
- Avocado, 500
- Safflower, 510
In addition to the higher smoke points and unassuming flavor, many neutral oils have something else going for them: their relative affordability. Canola and vegetable oils are ideal for recipes where scale is paramount, such as when you’re using large quantities for frying or baking. Other options, such as avocado and even peanut oils, can cost several times more and are best used in more sparing amounts if you’re concerned with budget.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that oils labeled as "refined" are unlikely to be neutral in flavor. "Unrefined" oils are unlikely to be neutral. This version has been updated.