Cooking Oils for Indian Food
One of the most important things that will affect the flavour of your Indian food are the cooking oils that you use.
The two most common cooking oils in Indian food are ghee and mustard oil. Others which are used are those of coconut oil, peanut (groundnut) oil and sesame oil (gingelly, til). Modern arrivals are sunflower oil, rapeseed (canola) and soybean.
A word about Smoke Points
The smoke point is the temperature at which any fat starts to smoke (guess what the flame point is).
Apart from the taste, the advantage of all the cooking oils used in Indian cooking is that they have very high smoke points (above 232C/450F) this means that meat and other ingredients will ‘seal’ very quickly when cooked.
A high smoke point is particularly important for deep frying which is a high temperature operation – this is why all good fish and chip shops use palm oil rather than standard vegetable oil – it has a higher smoke point.
Nearly all cooking oils should not be heated to smoking as this impairs both the flavour and the nutritional values. (At the smoke point, the fat breaks down into glycerol and free fatty acids).
Mustard oil on the other hand is unique in that should be heated till it just starts to smoke. This actually improves both the flavour and the nutritional values.
Perhaps the most common cooking oil is ghee, which is used almost everywhere on the Indian sub-continent as well as other areas of the Middle East such as Egypt.
Ghee is simply clarified butter; that is butter which has had the milk solids (proteins) removed from it. It is yellowish in colour and can now be bought reasonably easily – certainly all Indian shops will stock ghee and it can now be found in many supermarkets.
It is possible to make your own ghee, this basically involves simmering unsalted butter very slowly and separating the resultant liquid from the solids. Full instructions are at the end of this page.
As it has no milk solids in it, ghee can be stored without refrigeration in an airtight container, although if you make your own then it is probably best to keep in the fridge as you won’t be able to separate the solid as well as can be done commercially (unless of course you have an industrial centrifuge in your kitchen – no? thought not).
Ghee is used all over India both as a cooking oil and as an ingredient. Roti and naan can be brushed with ghee. It is used in Indian sweets such as halvi, Mysore pak and laddu. In Bengal and some other parts of Northern India, rice is served with ghee. Punjabi food used large quantities of ghee.
Almost as if to illustrate its importance, ghee also has religious significance. It is used in Hindu anointment rituals and is burnt in other religious rituals.
Nutritionally ghee is composed almost entirely of saturated fats. Whether this is good thing or a bad thing is still under debate by the scientific community (isn’t everything), who have recently found positive aspects to saturated fats. This will be discussed more in the Nutrition pages (which I haven’t written yet). From a cooking point of view saturated fats break down less at high temperature and therefore will last a long time without becoming rancid.
This is used almost as much in Indian cooking as ghee, and is the product of pressing mustard seeds. It is used a great deal all over northern and eastern India and in Pakistan and Bangladesh. It used to be even more commonly used before the advent of cheaply produced alternatives such as rapeseed oil.
It has a strong cabbage like smell and tastes hot and nutty when raw. When heated just to its smoke point, the flavour mellows becoming sweeter and slightly hot.
As well as being used as a cooking oil, it is used in pickles, and, like ghee, it also has a cultural significance being used as fuel in clay lamps at Punjabi weddings and in the festival of Diwali.
Unlike ghee, it has only 12% saturated fats and is largely composed of mono-unsaturated fats (60%) and polyunsaturated fats (21%). It is also high in Omega-3, contains anti-oxidants and is used as a preservative. Once reckoned unfit for human consumption in America, it is now reckoned to be one of the healthiest cooking oils there is.
This is used predominantly in Southern India, Sri Lanka and Goa where it is usually used for frying and sometimes as a flavouring ingredient. It imparts a lovely smooth well, coconutty taste.
In its refined form, it has a high smoke point, however in India it is most often used in its unrefined form and this has a much lower smoke point (360F/180C). Even so, due to its unusual molecular make up, it is very heat stable. It also has a relatively high melting point. Below 24C it is a white solid which then melts into a clear liquid.
Nutritionally it is rather strange; although it is largely made up of saturated fats, they are shorter chain fats than most saturated fats found in the diet and are, therefore, digested differently. There are also many weird and wonderful health claims surrounding the coconut in all its forms.
This is very popular (and very good) for Chinese cooking, in India it is used mostly in the North and West.
It is very good for frying and again has a high smoke point. It imparts the flavour of the peanuts themselves (good for cooking satay).
It is a mixed fat and not considered all that nutritionally brilliant. Interestingly it is claimed that in its refined state it does not produce the allergic reaction to peanuts that some people have (not sure I’d like to try this personally).
This is pretty much a mainstay in Chinese cuisine but is also used as a cooking oil in Southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu where it is known as gingelly or til oil.
It comes in both a raw form which is clear or light yellow; this has a mild flavour and is almost odourless. This has a very high smoke point and is suitable for deep frying.
More common is the toasted variety which is varying shades of brown (from golden to amber if you want to be poetic about it). This is more suitable for stir frying, seasoning and as part of a marinade. It has a very distinctive flavour and aroma, a quite strong burnt nutty taste.
Nutritionally it is high in polyunsaturates and contains natural anti-oxidants (and therefore will keep for ages).
As well as its use as a cooking oil, its other uses include massaging, hair treatments and (of course) religious uses.
Other Cooking Oils
You can use sunflower oil, rapeseed oil, or mixed vegetable oil if you wish, it won’t ruin the food but to me they really don’t do anything except fry the food. (Am I being a snob about this? – yes probably).
For me, olive oil (which I love in other cooking) does not go well; it has a low smoke point and I don’t think the taste compliments the flavours of most Indian food.
Make your own Ghee
You need a quantity of good quality unsalted butter – you can make as much or as little as you like, it will keep.
Put into a saucepan, preferably heavy bottomed, over a very low heat – too much heat will burn the ghee.
If you are making this by the pound then you need to continue heating for up to 45mins less for smaller quantities, this ensures all the water in the butter has boiled off or evaporated. As the water boils off be careful not to burn the ghee.
The solids will now be brown sink to the bottom of the pan or stick to the sides.
When you are happy that all the water has gone, you can either tip the pan and spoon out the ghee leaving the solids behind, or you can strain through muslin or cheesecloth (folded a few times to strain better).
When ghee was harder to come by and I made my own, I generally just made what I needed. If you want to go industrial then keep in an airtight jar in the fridge.