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Oils and Shortenings

Short Course on Oils and Shortenings

Fats, including oils and shortenings, are two of the most basic storeroom items. Knowing when and how to use them is a must.

In foodservice, fats are used primarily as a frying medium; an ingredient (in sauces or dressings); and in baking. The type of fat–be it oil or shortening (solid fat)–you use will depend on desired flavor of the final product, the amount of heat necessary to cook the food and your budget. Oils can range in price from inexpensive vegetable oil to very expensive olive oil.

A number of factors determine the applicability of fat for specific foodservice functions. For example, while liquid (oil) or solid fats may be used for frying, shortening or other solid fats are preferred. Liquid oils are generally used for making sauces or dressings.

Flavor is another important criteria. Neutral flavored fats, such as butter, margarine or vegetable shortening are recommended for baking and deep-frying. Flavorful oils, like peanut or olive oil, are more flavorful and therefore ideal for sauteeing and stirfrying.

The final point to consider when selecting the best fat or oil for the job is each oil's smoking point (the temperature at which constituents of the fat begin to break down and generate smoke). Fats with good flavor, but low smoking points–like butter, for example–are appropriate for sauteeing but not deep frying. The same is true for olive oil, although it does have a higher smoking point. Fats with neutral flavor, high smoking points and the ability to maintain high temperatures over prolonged use without breaking down, such as vegetable shortenings, are ideal for deep frying.

The following is a brief look at the most popular types of oils used in noncommercial foodservice, along with usage and storage tips.


Olive oil. Olive oils have a wide variety of natural flavors and aromas, which vary depending on the types of olive used, as well as climate and soil conditions where the olives were grown. Flavors range from mild to semi-fruity (more pronounced olive taste) to fruity (an intense olive flavor).

Olive oil is a versatile fat that can be used in a wide variety of dishes. It can add smoothness and tenderness to otherwise dry foods and moisture to baked goods. Olive oil can also help round out other flavors in many dishes.

Made from olives primarily grown in Mediterranean regions, olive oil is sold in three grades.

Extra Virgin olive oil is essentially the oil that is squeezed (usually mechanically) from olives. It offers the widest range of flavors and is very low in monounsaturated fatty acids. Extra virgin olive oil is a natural product that has not been further refined or processed. Therefore, it retains its color (yellowish to deep green), flavor and full nutrient value.

Virgin olive oil is similar, but it generally has a slightly higher level of in monounsaturated fatty acids. It is also lighter in color and has a less assertive flavor than extra virgin.

Olive oil is the common name for a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil (sometimes referred to as Pure Olive Oil). It is a less-flavorful blend of refined olive oil and extra virgin or virgin olive oil. It has a fairly low smoke point (280°F), so it should be used for sauteeing, broiling, basting or roasting.

When selecting a good olive oil, look for one that has a fresh and fruity aroma. Remember: the color of an olive oil doesn't necessarily correlate with its taste. For example, darker oils aren't always have more intensely flavored. The flavor of the olive oil you use has more to do with the olives or olive blend used and the growing conditions than with the color.

As for storage, olive oil should be kept in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Stored properly, it should maintain its optimum flavor for up to two years.

Vegetable oils may be extracted from seeds (canola,, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, sesame seed), grains (corn), legumes (peanuts and soybeans) and or nuts (walnut). Blended vegetable oils, usually containing some soybean oil, are refined to provide high smoke point and neutral flavor. Smoking points vary from 450°F (corn) to 510°F (safflower).

Shortening is divided into two groups; ones for frying and ones for baking applications.

Frying shortenings have been highly refined and are treated with additives that improve them as frying mediums. These shortening may be all vegetable or all animal fat or a combination of the two. All purpose shortening is a blend of vegetable oils (often corn and peanut), sometimes hydrogenated to make them solid at room temperature.

Shortening used for baking is made of highly refined vegetable oils if the label reads "vegetable shortening"; otherwise it may contain animal fat. It is hydrogenated for firm texture and usually emulsified to permit absorption of sugar when used to make baked goods.

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