Just like good herbs and seasonings, the right oil and can make or break a dish.

Westend 61

When asked to name the one thing I always keep in my pantry, I had to really think on an answer. You will usually find almonds, dried cranberries, canned tomatoes, dried pasta, and jarred marinara sauce, simple ingredients that can be used to throw together a quick summery chicken salad or a hot pasta dish. At the very back of the pantry, however, I keep a stash of oils – neutral oils, olive oils, and finishing oils –that either serve as the start of a great dish (what is fried okra if you can’t use oil?) or the finishing touch.

High-Heat, Neutral-Tasting Oil

If a recipe calls for vegetable oil it is generally referring to oils that have a high smoke point and neutral flavor. These oils, such as canola, sunflower, corn, and safflower oil, are best for roasting, frying, high-heat cooking, wok cooking, and baking. You want the oil to work hard for you but you don’t want to taste it. My mom always had a big bottle of Crisco Pure Vegetable Oil in the pantry and used it for just about everything: country fried steak, fried chicken, and she even used it to grease cake pans from time to time. There may be better vegetable oils on the market but, being the big sentimentalist, I still gravitate towards the Crisco when I am at the grocery store. You go with what you know, right?

Olive Oil

I can still remember the first time (many, many years ago) I was served bread with an olive oil-herb dip. I was having dinner at a Macaroni Grill in Suburbia, U.S.A., but, upon tasting that fragrant, light olive oil mixed with herbs and seasonings, I thought I had been transported to Positano on the Amalfi coast. Forget the entrée; just pour me some more wine, cut a hunk of cheese, and keep refilling the dip sauce. Can’t you hear the chatter of the small Italian village and feel the ocean breezes? Is it any wonder John Steinbeck loved this place? But - back to reality. Beyond a component of Italian daydreams, olive oil can be used for sautéing meats and vegetables or mixed into salad dressings and vinaigrettes. Olive oil has a low smoke point, so don’t do any high-heat frying with it; it is best used over moderate heat.

Finishing Oils

This is a really fancy sounding term for an oil, but it makes perfect sense. Just like finishing school, that teaches a girl niceties and social graces that sets her apart from others, a finishing oil is an easy way to add a unique layer of flavor to a dish. Is it necessary? No, but it definitely makes a difference in the finished product. A finishing oil may be extracted from strong flavored ingredients or may come from infusing oils with other flavors. A word of caution: you may enjoy using toasted sesame seed oil in your stir-fry, but don’t make the mistake I did and think “more is better” and pour it on the bottom of a hot pan before cooking. Heat typically dulls the flavor of a finishing oil so you don’t need to actually cook with it. Drizzle the toasted sesame oil over your finished stir-fry, or whisk a citrus infused finishing oil into a salad dressing.

WATCH: Mama's Fried Chicken

All oils should be stored in a cool, dry, dark pantry, away from heat and light. All oils, but specifically olive oil, are best stored in dark colored glass bottles, which helps keep the light out.