Not long ago, cooks had a limited choice of corn, soy and peanut oils, or blends thereof. Then we learned about canola, so called because it's Canadian oil, low acid, from the rapeseed plant. And we fell in love with olive oil, mastered the differences between virgin and extra-virgin, and compared Tuscan with Provencal and Californian with Spanish.
Now, just when we were beginning to feel pretty doggoned smug about our knowledge of all things unctuous, up pops a crop of specialty culinary oils. Lines of nut oils march down market shelves, and oils we've never heard of _ rice bran? _ stand shoulder-to-shoulder with more familiar varieties.
Culinary oils cost at least twice as much as vegetable, canola and some olive oils, so it's best not to count on them for deep frying or other cooking where large amounts are needed.
Here are several of the most widely distributed specialty oils.
_ CHICAGO TRIBUNE
ALMOND: Good for high-heat cooking; starts to smoke at 495 degrees. Almond oil's light color and clean flavor complement other ingredients. It is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, as is olive oil. At specialty markets and Albertsons.
AVOCADO: With a smoke point of more than 500 degrees, avocado oil is the sturdiest of the specialty oils. It will stand up to the flash-frying temperatures needed to stir-fry, and its rich, buttery flavor makes foods taste rich even when it is added in small quantities. At specialty markets and Publix Greenwise section.
GRAPE SEED: Neutrally flavored, grape-seed oil is good for medium-high heat such as quick frying or short stays in the skillet. Grape seed starts to smoke at 425 degrees. It won't contribute much taste, but it provides a great vehicle when you want other ingredients to star. At most grocery stores.
HAZELNUT: Its distinctive flavor makes hazelnut oil good in salads and sauces. Pair it with bitter greens; its warm, flavor softens their bite. Hazelnut oil has a medium-high smoke point (430 degrees); try cooking nut-crusted fish or chicken fillets in a splash of this oil. At specialty markets and Albertsons.
RICE BRAN: With its ability to withstand high temperatures (up to 490 degrees), rice-bran oil does not absorb the flavor of foods, so it can be used more times than many other oils. It is used widely in Japan. Its delicate, neutral flavor also contributes subtlety to baked goods and stir-fries. At Williams-Sonoma (or online at www.williams-sonoma.com) and health foods stores such as Nature's Finest in St. Petersburg.
WALNUT: The darling of dietitians, walnut oil is rich in omega 3s, the heart-protecting fatty acids that counterbalance the omega 6s so prevalent in the American diet. Discerning cooks appreciate it for its flavor, however, and find that using it in the skillet or muffin tin adds terrific walnut flavor even in small amounts. Smokes at 400 degrees. At most grocery stores.