Most contemporary recipes call for “Extra Virgin Olive Oil,” in a vain attempt to appear “healthy,” “wholesome,” and “chic”.
I select my cooking oils according to what I'm preparing.
If I'm sautéing, searing, or wok stir-frying, I use oils that have high smoke points.
What is a smoke point?
Each oil has its own “smoke point,” which is the temperature where the oil begins to break down. Always select an oil that has a higher smoke point than whatever temperature you're going to be cooking at.
For example, “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” is unsuitable for sautéing. Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a smoke point of 274°F, while sautéing is typically done at temperatures above 320°F. Extra Virgin Olive Oil breaks down at those temperatures. The byproducts of this broken-down oil can be nasty and foul-tasting.
You will see that in most of my recipes I call for “Extra Light Olive Oil.” That's no accident: Extra Light Olive Oil has a smoke point of 468°F. That's good enough for most of my high temperature cooking. For wok stir-fry cooking, I prefer Avocado oil, with a smoke point of 520°F, which virtually guarantees that I won't burn it.
As an interesting aside, although Butter is no good for cooking temperatures above 302°F, its clarified cousin, Ghee, is good for cooking temperatures up to 482°F.
Dump or Swirl?
A big mistake most cooks make is to pour a pile of oil into a cold pan, then set the pan on the fire.
While this may be convenient, all it does is invite burned oil.
Frying pans and most woks, have a sloping edge. The pooled oil tends to heat around the edges unevenly. The immediate oil film on the thin edge will tend to overheat while the bulk of the oil is still trying come to temperature.
A method preferred by professionals is to place a dry pan or wok directly on the heat and bring to temperature.
They test the pan's temperature by drizzling a few drops of water into the heating pan. If the water beads and sizzles, the pan's usually ready to receive the oil.
Swirling in the oil means making an even coating across the pan. This can also be accomplished by pouring in the oil and using a spatula to spread the oil around.
When adding oil to a wok, drizzle the oil in a thin layer around the upper edge of the wok, about half way up the side. That way, the thin sheet f oil gets a chance to heat up as it slides down the heated sides.
The other beneficial effect of adding oil to an already hot pan is that the pores of the metal will have opened and some of the oil will flow into the metal and increase its natural tendency to be “non-stick. A well-seasoned wok will have a coating of carbonized oil firmly imbedded in its surface and thus render the wok virtually non-stick over time. Well-used cast iron frying pans also exhibit this tendency to become naturally non-stick over time for the same reason.
What about non-stick pans?
The purpose for oiling a regular pan is to try to prevent the food from sticking. The non-stick pan doesn't have that issue.
You can oil a non-stick pan just like you would an uncoated pan.
The only use for the oil in a non-stick pan is to create a crisping medium that puts some color and a bit of taste on cooking food.
Can I use cooking spray in a non-stick pan?
My immediate answer is a resounding “NO!”
Stay away from and resist the urge to use cooking sprays in a non-stick pans, no matter what the manufacturer or your friends say.
Cooking sprays are only intended for use with uncoated pans, and also to oil cool grilling grates.
When you use a cooking spray in a heated non-stick pan, some of the material in the cooking spray immediately breaks down, adheres to the pan's surface, and bonds with the pan's coating. This causes an very thin film of material that renders the pan “sticky” again. The thin candy shell-like coating won't wash off, and heavy scrubbing with an abrasive can ruin the original coating.
Can I wash those oiled pans?
My immediate response is again, “No!”
Cleaning such a pan requires the use of something as simple as a piece of newspaper and some hot water. Rinse the pan, then just use a piece of newspaper to wipe the pan clean and dry. For the purist, I'd suggest rinsing the pan under running hot water and then drying thoroughly with paper towels.
It's a good practice to wipe a thin coating of fresh oil on a rinsed and dried cast iron pan. Place the dried, oiled pan in a heated oven to completely dry it. Bring the pan to about 200°F and leave it for about 15 minutes. Then let the pan come to room temperature and wipe out any residual oil and before storing it away.
Treat a wok the same way.
I use a bamboo brush specifically made for scrubbing woks. I clean my woks immediately after cooking by placing them under running extremely hot tap water and vigorously scrubbing the inside with the bamboo brush to remove any stuck-on food. I don't bear down enough to damage the coating.
Then I immediately dry the wok with paper towels, rub a thin coating of fresh oil over the wok's interior, and put it back on the fire. I heat the wok slightly until it's too hot to touch. Then I remove the wok from the fire and let it cool naturally. When the wok reaches room temperature, I wipe out any excess oil, then away it goes into my pan storage area.
By taking a little care with your cooking pans, they will serve you well for many years to come.