Baking with oil
I very much enjoy reading your column and have learned a lot, thank you. I recently found a fruit cake recipe using vegetable oil instead of butter. My question is; which vege oil should I use? The recipe doesn't say. - Lynda
I can well remember reading a recipe when I was a teenager that seemed so odd I couldn't believe it. It was for carrot cake. At the time I found it odd to use a vegetable as an ingredient for a cake - it just didn't seem right. What was even more odd was that it had no butter in it - instead it used vegetable oil. Back in Whanganui in those days I doubt we even had vegetable oil in the cupboard.
We cooked with either butter or beef dripping, which we'd render ourselves from the carcasses Dad and his mates would break down in our garage. The first time I was really aware of vegetable oil was when my mother began cooking her "fish and chips" in it in Auckland - it seemed very flash and it didn't make sense that they could make oil from vegetables.
However, I made my first carrot cake with sunflower oil and I was impressed at how moist it stayed compared with using butter. Obviously, oil at room temperature is a liquid, unlike butter, and so it made sense when I eventually spoke to a science teacher at school. It was possibly my first insight into the mystery of ingredients, a budding molecular gastronome I was indeed.
Not long afterwards I started making tomato soup cake - I think from the Radio NZ Cookbook - so the use of vegetables and oils in baking soon became less impressive as I turned to spices and differing sweeteners in my cooking to see what I could create.
I discovered the joys of cinnamon and cloves, honey and golden syrup, and the use of oils and veges seemed old hat by the end of the year. But to answer your question, pretty much any edible oil can be used, and what they taste like in their raw state is what they'll taste like in their cake-state.
Avocado oil is extremely rich and (usually) green - so it can be an advantage in a pale cake as it gives it a lovely hue and subtle flavour. If you use this, also replace some of the sugar with avocado honey which I've seen in NZ - an amazing honey from the blossoms of avocado orchards.
Using olive oil in cakes is something that has appeared in the past decade - the more "extra virgin" the oil, the stronger the taste, which can be grassy or peppery depending on the oil used. For a more subtle taste use olive oil with no mention of virgin.
Cold-pressed rape-seed (canola) oil from Britain is a wonderful oil to use in baking - it's the colour of golden saffron and has almost no taste. In NZ we use canola oil from Australia which is nice and stable. For general baking, use this or sunflower oil - they'll be tasteless and colourless so won't affect your baking.
Also consider using various nut oils (hazelnut and walnut oils can add a fabulous richness) or lemon, chilli and even truffle-infused olive oils or infused avocado oil. If the fruit cake you're making is really dense and heavy then the subtlety of these latter oils may be wasted, although a good slosh of chilli-infused oil will be an unexpected surprise for your afternoon tea guests.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you’re stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.