Best Oil for Cooking Indian Food


Indian cuisine is a mosaic of diverse flavors shaped by regional influences. From the fertile plains of Eastern India, where mustard seeds and oil thrive, to the coastal Karnataka region’s emphasis on coconut and seafood, each area imparts a unique touch to dishes. In Southern India, a quartet of fats—ghee, coconut, sesame, and neutral oils—takes the culinary spotlight.

As we navigate the world of Indian cooking oils, we delve into their health benefits, smoke points, and distinctive characteristics. From the widely used groundnut oil to the nutritional powerhouse of rice bran oil and the Mediterranean flair of olive oil, we explore the best choices for Indian kitchens.

Understanding the impact of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, coupled with the importance of avoiding trans fats, provides a concise guide to making informed and healthy culinary choices.

Join us on a brief yet flavorful journey through the diverse landscape of oils and fats that define Indian cooking.

Eastern Indian Cooking

Bengal and the eastern states of India, blessed with fertile plains thanks to the nutrient-rich soil carried by the Ganges River, enjoy a mild climate conducive to two annual harvests, including the staple crop of rice.

Abundant local vegetables thrive in this region, particularly mustard, influencing the prevalent use of mustard seeds and oil in traditional cooking. Additionally, the proximity to the sea ensures frequent inclusion of fish in Bengali curries.

Northern Karnataka Cooking

The Navayath community in northern Karnataka is renowned for meat-based dishes, while Mangalorean cuisine along the coast emphasizes seafood with the extensive use of coconut and coconut oil.

In southern India, coconut oil adds a unique touch to dishes, particularly in Kerala, where it is the preferred choice for its delightful aroma and taste. Using pure Kerala coconut oil enhances the flavor and deliciousness of their food.

South Indian Cooking

In South Indian cuisine, four primary fats take center stage: clarified butter or ghee, coconut oil, sesame oil, and neutral oils such as vegetable oil, corn oil, or sunflower oil. Some enthusiasts even opt for avocado oil in their South Indian culinary endeavors.

Ghee, coconut oil, and sesame oil are commonly employed for tempering, while sesame oil finds its place in pickle preparation. When considering a neutral oil for high-temperature cooking, coconut oil can be used, but alternatives, like vegetable cold-pressed sunflower oil, are also suitable.

Understanding Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Oils

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are predominantly present in plants and seafood. Polyunsaturated oils, such as safflower, sesame, sunflower seeds, corn, soybeans, and nuts, remain liquid at room temperature and in the refrigerator.

On the other hand, monounsaturated oils are liquid at room temperature but begin to solidify when refrigerated. Monounsaturated fatty acids have their benefits. They are commonly considered a healthier option against heart diseases, with recommendations favoring their consumption over both saturated fat and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Steer Clear of Trans Fats

Trans fats, formed through hydrogenation to extend shelf life, convert unsaturated fats into saturated fats. These fats elevate LDL (bad cholesterol) and reduce HDL (good cholesterol).

Familiar sources include Vanaspati, margarine, and shortening. Due to its cost-effectiveness, trans fat is prevalent in restaurants, processed foods, and mass-produced items like cakes and pastries. Be cautious and opt for the correct oil by choosing healthier alternatives.

Different Kinds of Oils for Indian Cooking

Mustard Oil

Mustard oil, derived from the seeds of the mustard plant, oil is best characterized by its spicy taste, distinctive aroma, and deep gold color.

Particularly cherished in Bengal and eastern India, this oil plays a crucial role in enhancing the flavor of various dishes, with particular Rajasthani culinary delights also relying on its distinctive taste.

In the culinary process, mustard oil is often treated uniquely. It is heated nearly to the point of smoking, then cooled down before being reheated again. This specific method helps ton down the intense aroma of mustard oil, making it more palatable for a broader range of culinary applications.

Mustard oil, a deep yellow oil with a pungent smell, is made from mustard seeds. It contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which are beneficial for health, but it also has erucic acid, which can be harmful in large amounts.

The careful handling of the oil preserves its unique characteristics while ensuring it harmonizes well with the overall taste profile of the dishes it is used in.

Corn Oil

In India, maize is the third most crucial cereal crop. Corn oil, extracted from maize, stands out as a widely utilized cooking oil, particularly valued for its application in deep frying.

The critical attribute of corn oil lies in its high smoke point, allowing for use in high-heat cooking methods such as frying, grilling, and sautéing without the risk of smoking or burning.

Additionally, its mild and neutral taste contributes to its versatility, ensuring that it complements rather than overpowers the flavors of other ingredients in various recipes.

While corn oil is not inherently harmful, it is essential to note that it undergoes significant processing and is frequently employed in less healthy cooking practices, such as deep frying.

Like popular vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil is rich in omega-6 fatty acids, which, when over-consumed over time, can lead to pro-inflammatory effects and pose health concerns.

Consequently, moderation of refined oil and a balanced dietary fat intake is advisable to ensure the benefits of corn oil without compromising overall health.

What is the Smoke Point in Cooking Oil?

The smoke point of a cooking oil is the temperature at which it starts to burn and produce smoke. This can give food an unpleasant taste. Different oils have different smoke points ranging from low to high temperatures.

Factors like the oil’s quality, the heat used, the air in the oil container, and the amount of free fatty acids (FFA) influence the smoke point. Oils with higher FFA can become rancid faster and start smoking sooner.

When oil smokes, it breaks down, releasing chemicals that affect the food’s flavor. While some cooking methods, like stir-frying, may lead to smoking, it could be better. Overheated fats can release harmful free radicals and destroy the beneficial nutrients in the oil.

When tempering with oil, choosing an oil with a high smoke point is essential. Suitable options include coconut oil, sesame oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil.

Ghee (clarified butter) is also a viable choice. However, unclarified butter and olive oil are not recommended due to their lower smoke point.

Rice Bran Oil

Rice bran oil stands out as the best cooking oil for its versatility, finding applications in deep frying, pan frying, grilling, salad dressings, pickles, and regular Indian curries.

Remarkably, it complements the flavors and aromas of the prepared food without overpowering them. Instead, it helps maintain non-sticky, crisp, and fresh textures for an extended period.

Rice bran oil is one of the healthy cooking oils for pan frying due to its health benefits and culinary advantages. It is extensively used as a premium edible oil in various Asian countries, including Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, and Thailand.

Try this Chana Paneer recipe with rice bran oil.

Unlike olive and canola oils, rice bran oil is well-suited for frying and baking, thanks to its subtle taste that enhances rather than dominates a dish. It features a nutty, earthy flavor reminiscent of peanut oil, and its high smoke point makes it suitable for high-temperature cooking methods.

Overall, rice bran oil’s versatility, nutritional value, and culinary attributes contribute to its popularity in various Asian cuisines.

Groundnut Oil

Derived from groundnuts, groundnut oil is a vital energy source in our diet, meeting specific nutritional needs. This cooking oil is rich in heart-friendly monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), which help lower bad cholesterol without affecting good cholesterol levels.

With added omega-6 fatty acids, groundnut oil is ideal for cooking. Low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fatty acids, it maintains its nutritional content even at higher temperatures due to its high smoking point.

In Indian culinary traditions, groundnut oil, also known as peanut oil, is cherished for its slightly nutty flavor and exceptional stability in various cooking methods.

Try this Dahi Vada recipe with peanut oil, and tell us how it went!

While Andhra and Maharashtra regions prefer peanut oil, mustard oil takes precedence in the northern and northeastern states, contributing its unique flavor to the diverse landscape of Indian cuisine.

Olive Oil

An increasing number of Indians also incorporate olive oil into their everyday cooking. The appeal of olive oil lies in its versatility and various health benefits.

Indians appreciate products that serve multiple purposes, making olive oil a popular choice in Indian households.

Olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, is preferred for its superior quality. It is made from pure, cold-pressed olives and boasts a fruity and verdant flavor. It is the healthiest oil for your heart health.

When used in Indian cooking, extra virgin olive oil boosts dishes’ flavor and enhances the overall taste experience.

Whether sautéing spices or preparing a classic curry, incorporating extra virgin olive oil is a flavorful choice that aligns with the growing awareness of its positive impact on health and well-being.

Safflower Oil

With its neutral taste and high smoke point, safflower oil is an excellent choice for Indian cooking, suitable for a range of high-heat methods such as frying, stir-frying, and preparing curries.

Beyond its culinary versatility, recent studies highlight the beneficial health effects of safflower oil, particularly its balanced fatty acid profile, which has shown potential in reducing fat accumulation.

Pure Desi Ghee

Ghee, a clarified butter with no water content or milk solids, is known for its shelf stability and high smoke point, making it ideal for high-temperature cooking. It is also a nutrient-dense source of fat. Pure desi ghee, distinguished by its unique flavor, is preferred for dishes with a buttery taste.

On the other hand, non-grass-fed ghee, with its neutral flavor, may be favored in recipes with a more subtle taste. Ensuring a supply of ghee and either coconut or neutral oil with a high smoke point is recommended when stocking up.

Here is a delicious dahi kebab recipe with ghee.

In specific culinary applications, especially when aiming for a distinct mustard flavor, combining a neutral oil like corn or peanut oil with 1/4 teaspoon of dry mustard can impart the desired taste.

Mustard seeds, known for their audible snap and pop when introduced to hot oil, not only add a sensory element but also contribute significantly to the overall flavor profile of the dish.

Exploring Indian cooking oils showed us different flavors in different places. Choosing good fats and avoiding bad ones is essential for tasty and healthy cooking. Our journey through Indian oils gives us a simple guide to making better choices in the kitchen.

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