Ingredient: Which Cooking Oil is Right?

There are SO MANY cooking oils available to the home cook nowadays, it can be confusing and overwhelming. Of course there are the old standards, canola, olive, corn, sunflower, safflower, “vegetable”, etc. And in recent years we’ve seen tremendous growth in some more unique gourmet oils like nut oils (hazelnut, walnut, etc.), avocado oil, coconut oil, etc. In addition, we’ve become much more aware that there are even differences (sometimes big ones) in the oils we are more familiar with. (After all, an olive oil is not just an olive oil, right?) 

So, how do we make sense of them all? How do we know when or why to use one vs. another? I thought I’d share a primer on some of the keys to look for - what’s important and what’s not.

There are a few things to know about cooking oils. Each has a different profile when it comes to taste and other properties. A few of the important ones are:

Taste
Each oil brings with it a distinctive taste. Those tastes go with certain foods, but perhaps not others. Some are more neutral and some bring a stronger flavor.

Smoke Point
The “smoke point” is the temperature at which it begins to break down, smoke, and start to taste awful. So it’s really important to know the smoke point of the oil you are cooking with.

Best Uses
Because of it’s characteristics, each oil lends itself more toward certain uses that maybe others. Some are better drizzled over veggies, some are better for frying, etc. 

With all that said, let’s dig into some of the different oils you should know about. I’ll start with some of the more common oils.

Canola Oil

This is probably the most common oil you’ll come across. It’s a pretty standard mass-market cooking oil. 

Taste
Canola oil generally has a balanced, flavorless taste. It won’t affect the taste of the foods you cook in it.

Smoke Point
One of the great qualities of canola oil is that it has a pretty high smoke point - usually around 400˚.
 

Best Uses
Canola is a very good all-around oil. Salads and dressings? Definitely. And because of its higher smoke point, canola oil is also a really good frying oil. It can also be used in baking.
 

Olive Oil

Olive oil is made by crushing olives into a paste, then extracting the excess water from the mixture. The oil that gets extracted is extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO). Light olive oil is further refined - treated with chemical solvents to neutralize the flavor. It’s lighter in taste and color, but has the same calorie count as EVOO.

Taste
Olive oils can vary quite a bit. Some are lighter, some are richer and more full-bodied. Each has its own unique flavor profile. They are sometimes described as having “fruity”, “grassy”, or “buttery” taste notes; often depending on the olives’ points of origin.

Smoke Point
Olive oil has a more moderate smoke point - close to about about 325˚. So, I wouldn’t use it for high-heat cooking.

The “light” olive oils (because they are more refined) have a smoke point of 465-470˚ F.

Best Uses
EVOO is quite frankly not a great cooking oil. It’s perhaps better used in vinaigrettes or as a dipping or finishing oil. Light olive oil on the other hand is much better for higher heat cooking because of its higher smoke point.

Corn Oil

Corn oil comes from the germ of the corn. It's relatively low in saturated fats.

Taste
Corn oil has a pretty neutral flavor.

Smoke Point
It's smoke point is a pretty high 450˚.

Best Uses
Frying. Because of it’s neutral flavor, higher smoke point, and low cost corn oil is often used in commercial kitchens. You can also use it in salad dressings and dips with stronger flavors like peppers or garlic.


Sunflower Oil

Sunflower oil is made by pressing sunflower seeds. It's one you may want to use in moderation because different sunflower oils contain different properties. And some are partially hydrogenated which contain trans fats.

Taste

It's a light-tasting vegetable oil.

Smoke Point
Sunflower oil has a high smoke point of 440-450˚F.

Best Uses
It's a good choice for higher-heat cooking like searing and sautéing. And because of its neutral flavor, it's good for baking also.


Vegetable Oil

So what's this thing you see called "vegetable oil"? Several oils can be thrown in the vegetable oil category, right? Well, vegetable oil is essentially a blend of different refined oils. It definitely has a purpose.

Taste
It is neutral-tasting and -smelling, 

Smoke Point
Vegetable oil has a high smoke point of about 400˚ (but be aware that that can vary depending on the blend of oils used). 

Best Uses
Because of its high smoke point it’s good for high-heat sautéing and frying. It can also be used in used in salad dressings and vinaigrettes because of its neutral flavor.

Now let’s dig a little further into some of the more esoteric gourmet oils that are increasingly available to the home chef.

Nut Oils (Walnut, Hazelnut, Peanut)

Nut oils have become increasingly popular on recent years. They offer a different, often bold taste that other oils just won't have.

Taste
They generally  have a (surprise!) nutty taste.

Smoke Point
Low smoke point - so you really shouldn’t heat them at all. 

Best Uses
Think of these as finishing oils or to use in a vinaigrette. And you may want to use them sparingly because they tend to be pretty expensive.


Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed oil is a by-product of winemaking - pressed from grape seeds. Restaurant chefs love grapeseed oil because of it's high smoke point and neutral taste. But as a home-cook you may want to use it more sparingly because the jury's still out about its health properties. In some ways, it's like olive oil in that it contains some monounsaturated fat. But mostly it’s made of polyunsaturated fats like omega-6s and omega-9 fatty acids.

Taste
It’s been described as having a very “clean”, light taste that doesn’t overpower a dish - and works well with other oils.

Smoke Point
It's got a relatively high smoke point of about 420˚.

Best Uses
Use it on salads and raw veggies or in dips, sauces and salsas. Use it for frying and sautéing - but maybe when you only need a small amount of oil.


Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has become much more popular in recent years. In addition to some of its healthy properties, its unique consistency (at room temperature it’s like soft butter) make it useful for other tasks like as a skin moisturizer.   

Taste
Coconut oil gives off a kind of tropical scent when it’s heated. It’s got a mild, sweet, coconut-y (if that’s even a word) taste.

Smoke Point
Coconut oil has a pretty low smoke point (350˚), so don’t use it for higher-heat cooking. But it works well for more moderate temperature cooking.

Best Uses
Baking (especially for non-dairy baked goods like vegan recipes), moderate-heat roasting. Also, people love it for popping popcorn.


Avocado Oil

OK, you may never even heard of avocado oil. But it’s available more and more. It’s high in the good monounsaturated fats.

Taste
Avocado oil has a pretty neutral flavor. 

Smoke Point
Avocado oil has a really high smoke point of about 520˚,

Best Uses
This oil is pretty flexible. It can be used in sautéing, roasting, searing, and vinaigrettes alike.


And a word about storage….
As far as how to store your oils, you’ll keep the best flavor and the most nutritional value if you store oils in an airtight glass bottle in a cool, dark place. If your oil is going to sit unused for longer than one month, it’s better to store it in the refrigerator. You'll know your oil is rancid if it takes on a bad taste and smell. Toss it.

______ . ______

I know, the world of cooking oils can be confusing. But once you learn about the differences – the characteristics, the limitations, and the best ways to use each, you’ll be good to go. In fact, what you probably need is 3-4 different oils that can cover pretty much every situation. In my kitchen I have 2 olive oils (one really good one and one that has been flavored), canola oil, sesame oil, and coconut oil. If a recipe calls for a specialty oil like a hazelnut or avocado I’d just go buy what I needed in a pretty small quantity. But, hey, that’s me. You’ll make your own choice based on what you like to cook.

If you liked this post, you may also want to check these out:
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