Why does cooking oil make things taste better when it doesn’t taste good by itself?


I get why sugar makes things taste better since it tastes good by itself but why does something like cooking oil which doesn’t taste good on its own make food taste better than it otherwise would be?

In: 734

Water can only get so hot before it boils away.

Oil can get much hotter than water.

Certain kinds of chemical reactions, like the browning of starches and the caramelization of sugars, only happen at temperatures above the boiling point of water.

Because oil is liquid, even if your pan or pot heats unevenly, the oil will transfer the heat until all the oil is the same temperature, which lets things cooked in the oil cook more evenly than without.

Because it allows the [Maillard reaction](https://i0.wp.com/www.compoundchem.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Food-Chemistry-Maillard-Reaction.png?ssl=1) to take place. This chemical reaction is responsible for the browning of fried foods, and it creates the delicious roasted and toasted flavours of fried foods.

The key is that this reaction takes place at 140-165 C, which is hotter than the boiling point of water. No matter how hot the pan gets, liquid water itself can’t get hotter than 100C unless it’s in a sealed vessel. The extra heat goes into turning water to steam faster, but the liquid water can’t get hotter than 100C. But oil remains a liquid in this temperature range! That means the oil in the pan or fryer can get hot enough to cause the Maillard reaction in the food, creating the good flavours.

**TLDR:** You’re right the oil doesn’t taste good on its own – the point of the oil is a means of getting the food hot enough to do the chemical reactions that make the good flavours. The flavor isn’t oil itself.

More info:



Cooking with oil does a few important jobs, even outside of the taste of oil itself. First off, it distributes heat, so that food cooks more evenly. This makes food less likely to burn and keeps everything cooked to the same level, which is important – without oil, only the bits of food in direct contact with the pan get the full effect; oil creates a smooth layer that transfers heat much better.

But even more importantly, oil can get much hotter than water, which boils at 100C/212F. Water literally can’t get any hotter than that without evaporating, while oil can be hundreds of degrees hotter before it burns off. That high temperature lets us reach the Maillard reaction, where sugars and proteins in food react together creating savory flavor compounds and a browned color. The sear on a steak, the crisp brownness of pizza crust, the richness of slow-cooked onions, these all come from Maillard reactions.

Of course, oil is also dietary fat – and we’ve evolved to enjoy the rich taste of fat. We make most cooking oils to cook evenly and not burn too hot, so we aren’t prioritizing their flavor; they add richness to the food that we cook instead. But things like butter and extra virgin olive oil are both forms of fat with some tasty flavor compounds in as well – and many of us love those tastes.

Aside from what oil does to food when cooking it, which other people have explained, oil makes food taste better because of its texture rather than its flavor. Fatty foods have more of a “smooth” texture which our brains find pleasant.

A lot of people are missing the main reason. Yeah, the oil helps to facilitate the Maillard reaction as it conducts heat well. But there are also many compounds, including many in herbs and spices, that are fat soluble and carried to our taste buds by the oil