Oil, Corn and Peanut

What a Chinese cook needs from a cooking oil is one that will heat to a high temperature (frequently up to 400°) without burning and will not impart a characteristic smell or taste to foods. It is important also that the oil be light and not greasy, and to my mind that it be economical as well.

My everyday cooking oil is Mazola corn oil. I buy it in 1 gallon plastic containers, typically in Chinese groceries where it is sold a few dollars below the average supermarket price. I like the light, clean taste of com oil on my tongue and find that it heats without foaming and seems to stay cleaner during repeated deep-frying. When I am ready to throw out frying oil that has turned from gold to brown, the plastic container is a perfect receptacle.

I use peanut oil as a second choice. It is available in several good brands, Planters which one sees most everywhere, and also in Chinese brands such as Panther and Tung Ming, equally good for Chinese purposes. The expense of peanut oil and what seems to me its stronger, more oily taste is what leads me to choose it second. This makes me atypical among Chinese cooks who for the most part seem to prefer it, though I suspect this is a matter of habit as much as taste, peanuts in China being far more plentiful than com.

As for cottonseed oil and soybean oil, often used in Chinese restaurant kitchens in the West, I have not had much experience with them. My general impression is that what is on the market is poorly processed and overly oily in taste. What I have sampled does not perform as well or taste as good as quality com or peanut oil.

If you are shopping in Chinese markets where the number of oil types and brands is great, one word of caution: buy the smallest container available and try it out at home, first by heating it to 400° and then by frying a piece of bread at 350°. The smell and look of the oil as it heats is a good index of its character and the refinement of the processing. The bread will tell you what it tastes like. Oil that foams, has a chemical smell, or blankets the food with a strong or specific taste is not appropriate for Chinese cooking.

For recycling oil used in deep- or shallow-frying, and for the meaning of the designation “fresh oil” that appears in some recipes.

Corn and peanut oil are cooking oils. For information on seasoning oils, see Sesame Oil, Chinese and Japanese, and Chili Oil.