Neutral oils are made from nuts, grains, seeds or fruits. Among the most common varieties you’ll find are corn, canola (derived from canola), greens (usually a blend that may include corn, canola, soybean, and sunflower oils), avocado, grape seed, sunflower, safflower, and peanuts.
These types of oils can be extracted mechanically, by pressing the source food in an expeller, or chemically with solvents, writes Jennifer Cook in a guide to choosing cooking oil for Consumer Reports in The Washington Post. The oils are then often refined with chemicals and high temperatures, which creates uniform color, shelf life and their characteristic neutral flavor.
Note that anything labeled as cold pressed, refined, unprocessed or extra virgin is unlikely to be neutral in taste. Olive oil and coconut oil are excellent examples, although you can find more neutral refined versions of these. (“Cooking” and “extra-light” olive oils are common.) Peanut butter and avocado oil can also go either way, depending on how they’re processed. Some nut oils, like walnut or hazelnut, retain the flavor of their source, so they’re best used in recipes where you want that to come through.
As you’d expect, neutral oils are perfect for when you don’t even want to know they’re there. “In heavily seasoned food, the characteristic flavor of fat may not be noticeable, but in delicate foods it is,” writes Shirley O. Corriher in CookWise.
Baking is a prime example, as many cakes, muffins and quick breads rely on oils for a tender, moist texture. Although some recipes are designed to take advantage of the distinctive flavor of stronger oils, such as Strawberry Pistachio Butter Cake, neutral oils are generally better for baked goods, especially in classic yellow cakes, such as Tres Leches Cake or Blueberry Poke Cake or Cupcakes.
The choice of oil can make or break some savory applications. Neutral butter is preferable in something like homemade mayo or aioli, where it’s just one of the few raw ingredients with nothing to hide behind. Likewise, canola oil makes a suitable blank canvas for other sauces and seasonings, including S’chug, Sichuan Chile Oil, and Jalapeño Oil.
Why else are they 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 everything in the oil—fats, proteins, sugars, other organic material—starts to interact with oxygen and burn, says Joseph Provost, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego who co-authored the “The Science of Cooking: Understanding the Biology and Chemistry Behind Food and Cooking.”
The refining process removes many of the compounds prone to burning, which is especially useful when it comes to roasting 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 drawn from a list shared by food scientist and author Robert Wolke with The Post in 2007:
- Canola, 400 degrees
- Grape seed, 420
- Sunflower, 440
- Corn, 450
- Peanut, 450
- Blends of vegetable oils, 450
- Extra light olive, 468
- Avocado, 500
- Safflower, 510
In addition to 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 of the essence, such as when using large quantities for frying or baking. Other options, such as avocado oil and even peanut butter, can cost several times as much and are best used sparingly if you’re budget-conscious.