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Pantry Primer: Oils

Oils tend to get a bad rap. Sure, they increase the fat content of a dish -- but not without adding flavor and, in many cases, a host of good-for-you benefits. In fact, incorporating the right oils (those low in saturated fats) into your cooking can help reduce cholesterol, prevent cancer, and even boost the health quotient of many ingredients. (Foods containing vitamins D and E, as well as lycopene, get better absorbed when paired with a fat.) Although organic varieties don't add any nutrition per se, they do cut down on toxic chemicals and pesticides. These six qualify as health superstars.

Walnut Oil
What: With its delicate, roasted tones, walnut oil is considered the gold standard of culinary oils. As such, it costs a bit more than other oils, so use it sparingly. Because it has a relatively short shelf life, make sure to keep walnut oil in the refrigerator to prevent it from going rancid.
Why: Walnuts contain omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), as well as magnesium, potassium, and vitamin E.
How: Serve walnut oil cold or barely warmed to preserve its slightly nuanced flavor.

Olive Oil
What: Extracted from the olive tree's fruit, it has an almost grassy flavor. Opt for extra virgin and virgin, which are mechanically extracted without chemicals or added heat.
Why: High in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, olive oil contains antioxidant-rich plant compounds and has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol. Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil generally boast greater antioxidant properties than the regular variety.
How: Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil work best in low- and no-heat cooking; regular olive oil is more heat-stable. A good test for all oils: If it smokes, the heat is too high.

Canola Oil
What: A current darling among top chefs and home cooks because of its neutral taste and tolerance to heat, canola oil makes an excellent all-purpose oil.
Why: High in unsaturated fat, canola oil also maintains a low saturated fat content of just over 7 percent. Using canola oil sparingly may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
How: Canola oil works best in high-heat cooking as well as in baking.

Flaxseed Oil
What: This rich, nutty-tasting oil is extracted from the seeds of the flax plant. Look for unfiltered varieties, which contain more nutrients, and store in the refrigerator to preserve flavor.
Why: Like walnut oil, flaxseed oil is a great source of ALA, making it an excellent alternative for those who don't eat enough fish. ALA appears to have anti-inflammatory properties and may also help lower blood pressure.
How: Flaxseed oil doesn't hold up to heat. Use it in dishes like pesto or hummus.

Peanut Oil
What: Derived from one of America's favorite snack foods, peanut oil's rich flavor is suitable for everyday use.
Why: High in monounsaturated fats, peanut oil contains the heart-friendly phytochemical resveratrol (also found in red wine). Resveratrol has antioxidant properties and may help in the prevention of breast and other cancers.
How: Often the deep-fry oil of choice due to its ability to handle high heat, peanut oil works equally well in stir-fries.

Grape-Seed Oil
What: A byproduct of winemaking, grape-seed oil brings a clean flavor that shines in many dishes.
Why: Grape-seed oil delivers big on vitamin E and flavonoids, antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of stroke and coronary disease. Manufacturers often use the harsh chemical hexane to extract it; look for organic or expeller-pressed varieties.
How: It's ideal for sauteing because of its resistance to high heat. Grape-seed oil also makes a delicious salad dressing.

Text by Merrill Stubbs

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