When you’re starting out in the kitchen — or even if you’re acquainted with the kitchen and experimenting with new ingredients — the subtle differences in certain ingredients can be confusing. Not to mention, some items have multiple names, but are actually the same. Here are a few items and the differences (if any) between them.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil versus Olive Oil
The difference between these two is simply about how they are pressed. In order to get oil out of olives they press them, the first pressing yields the richest tasting oil and is called extra virgin olive oil. The acidity is no more than 8% in extra virgin olive oil and is more nutrient dense; it has vitamin a & e and magnesium. Virgin olive oil is made with slightly riper olives.
When you see “refined” on an oil label it means it’s been treated to neutralize the stronger acidic taste. If you are using the oil for cooking and want to heat the oil, it’s cheaper to go for virgin or plain olive oil. If you are using the oil in raw form (for salads and dipping breads) use a higher quality extra virgin olive oil for better taste.
Grapeseed oil versus Canola oil
Grapeseed oil is an oil made from grapes; it’s a prominent by-product in winemaking. It has a moderately high smoke point and is used in cosmetics as well. It’s not widely marketed as a cooking oil, however.
Canola oil is actually grapeseed oil which is why people sometimes confuse it with the above grapeseed oil. Canola oil was named in Canada (“can” for Canada and “ola” for oil) to make it more marketable. Canola oil has a lower acid content. Nearly all Canola oil is chemically treated and refined. Canola is basically tasteless and is used for deep frying often.
Difference in Vinegars
Vinegars are a great way to impart different flavors into your foods. Vinegars are great in marinades, they are used in pickling, and even used in cleaning. The most common vinegars are white distilled and apple cider vinegar.
White distilled vinegar is used widely in pickling, it has no unique taste on its own so more ingredients are added to the pickling liquid to create more taste. White distilled vinegar is the cleaning vinegar and can be used to condition your hair.
Apple cider vinegar imparts a slightly fruity flavor to foods. Apple cider vinegar is good for dressings. Apple cider vinegar is famous for its health benefits (though disputed) and many people dilute it with fruit juice or water to drink it.
Wine vinegars are, as you may have guessed, made with wine. The red wine vinegars usually have raspberry undertones and the white wine vinegars generally have a more mellow flavor. The better the wine the vinegar was made from the better the vinegar will be.
Balsamic vinegar is easily the most flavorful (and most expensive) vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is traditionally made in one area in Italy and is boiled down Trebbiano grape juice and then fermented. I like reducing a good balsamic vinegar, adding a bit of butter, and drizzling it over steak.
Personal taste has everything to do with your vinegar use. Purchasing a cheaper balsamic vinegar isn’t going to yield the same delicious reduction as a more expensive balsamic. Purchase a few balsamic vinegars at once to determine the brand you favor. There are more vinegars still yet: coconut vinegar, rice vinegar (gentle flavor used in some sushi making), beer vinegar, malt vinegar (tangy, used for fish and chip dishes). Using vinegar is a great way to create unique flavors and strengthen your palate.
Red Wine versus White Wine
Most people have their personal preference with wines. If you don’t then know that there is a huge plethora of wines and tasting one white wine you don’t like shouldn’t turn you off to all white wines. In general though, white wines will be mellower with subtle flavors and red wines are fuller bodied. Red wines are made by using the whole grape including the skin, which is why the taste is heavier. If you intend to cook with the wine don’t purchase “flavored” wines like Arbor Mist. Also, avoid “cooking” wines they are sodium-heavy and heavily refined and altered, purchase a real bottle of wine to cook with. People generally drink and use red wines when cooking red meats (because reds can stand up to the stronger meat flavors). White wines are usually used with poultry and fish. However, you should cook with and drink what you like. Just like the vinegars, purchase a few bottles to see what you like, or go to a wine tasting.
Differences in Salts
The market for different salts has opened up in the past few years. One can look at the local grocery store and find Himalayan sea salt or Hawaiian salt. Just like with vinegar and wine, if you want to experiment with gourmet salt it’s all about personal taste.
Iodized salt is what is widely used as regular table salt. It has a harsher taste. Iodine was added to table salt around the 1920’s in an effort to lower the incidence of goiter. Even today many people don’t get enough iodine so using table salt isn’t a bad thing. Seasoning your food properly will make you a better cook too, just don’t go overboard, of course.
Sea salt is larger in flake size. Sea salt is what is generally used on soft pretzels and still has a harsh taste but less so than table salt. Kosher salt is sea salt that can safely be used in Jewish kitchens as it has no additives and was cleanly mined.
Lastly, fleur de sel means flower of salt in French and is hand-harvested sea salt. It’s very flaky and the taste is subtle and more “briny”. Fleur de sel is a great finishing salt.
Baking Powder versus Baking Soda
Firstly, know that if you are baking something it is more scientific than cooking something. Cake making and pastry making has less wiggle room, so make sure you’re following instructions correctly.
Both baking powder and baking soda are leavening agents meaning they will release carbon dioxide during baking to make the product rise.
Baking soda is pure sodium bicarbonate. Baking soda won’t work as well if the recipe doesn’t have moisture and the element of something acidic (like lemon juice, buttermilk, honey). If the recipe uses baking soda you will need to bake the product generally immediately so the leavening will work best.
Baking powder is sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar and sometimes a drying agent (like cornstarch). Since baking powder already has acid (cream of tartar) the recipe doesn’t necessarily require an acidic agent to help the leavening.
If you have any questions about differences, let me know and I will try to help!
Photo credit Inxsive28.