Most recipes require liquids, whether we’re talking about a solvent, a conductor, or a lubricant it is going to be important. So, let’s divide our liquids into oils and water based. Oils serve triple duty as a flavoring, a lubricant, and an excellent conductor of heat. Most oils, olive and peanut being obvious exceptions, come from nuts and seeds and are usually a single ingredient affair. Whether you are baking, sauteing, or roasting you really need to have some around.
OLIVE OIL: Olive oil is extracted from green olives by crushing and is available pretty much everywhere. I would suggest never buying below the ‘extra virgin’ grade. At lower grades it becomes acidic and bitter. Olive oil can be used for sauteing, and dressings. Unlike other oils, olive oil is not useful for frying due to its low smoke point (the point at which the oil itself begins to burn). Olive oil is best as a seasoning.
SEED OILS: These oils tend to have a much higher smoke point. They also have nearly no flavor, making for a more utilitarian oil. These oils include: canola, safflower, peanut(technically a legume), as well as many others. Seed oils find their use mostly as a conduit for heat and a form of lubrication, so use them for high heat situations where you don’t want them to interfere with the flavor.
NUT OILS: These have a wide range of heat tolerances and like olive oil they all have their own strong flavors, because of this they have great potential in baked goods and confections. Some common nut oils include: hazelnut, macadamia, and almond. If you are baking cookies, I strongly suggest having some nut oils around. You can substitute one quarter of the butter in a recipe for a nut oil and add substantial flavor without compromising the chemistry.
SESAME OIL: Although technically a seed oil I feel it warrants its own entry for one reason: black sesame oil. Normal sesame oil has almost no flavor and can be replaced with most seed oils. However, black (or dark) sesame oil is a horse of a different color. Black sesame oil is extracted from smoked sesame seeds, and has a rich smoky flavor. This oil is very important in Asian cooking, mostly as a condiment in fact, for salads, dipping sauces, and seasoning. You can cook with it, which sometimes is really quite nice, but watch it carefully as the smoke point is low.
Next time I will be covering the water based liquids in your pantry, these are just as important as the oils.