Cooking Oils: What Are They and Which One To Use

It seems like with every step by the pantry aisle at the grocery store, another oil tends to land on the shelf. There was a time when canola and olive oil ruled the world, but now the times have changed. We have avocado, sesame, and more–all with increasingly stylized glass bottles. The simple truth is that although your cooking oil can at times be an afterthought, selecting a complementing oil for your meal can change the profile of your dish at home in many ways. Let’s see how by diving into the world of oils!

What Makes a Cooking Oil?
A cooking oil is any oil extracted from plants, seeds, or fruits. At times these oils can be mixed to create a “vegetable oil” which is a common variety you’ll see on shelves. You may see the term “unrefined” or “refined” in reference to the oil in the bottles, which refers to the process the oil undergoes to filter it. This process usually allows the oil to have a higher “smoke point” which refers to the temperature that the oil goes from gently simmering, to setting off your fire alarms with a plume of smoke. You may have learned this lesson for yourself when pan-frying above 350 degrees F with unrefined extra virgin olive oil, as it has a much lower smoke point than, say, refined peanut oil. Some savvy cooks even make their own infused oils by steeping herbs and spices to extract their aroma and flavor.

No matter which oil you use, there are a few universal truths that apply to anything you may end up stocking. Whether it’s an oil with high saturated fats like coconut or an infused oil like truffle, a general rule of thumb is to keep it stored in a cool, dry, dark place, and to use it within a month or so for best taste. Though temperature is not the real enemy here, but light. Sunlight can react with your oil and change its composition, staling the aroma and possibly making it turn completely rancid.

Healthy Oil
Understanding the function of each oil can only get you so far, especially when they’re produced differently. While most oils look the same, some produce unhealthy saturated and trans fats, like coconut oil, which is loaded in saturated fats. Most tropical-based oils tend to be high in unhealthy fats, so it’s usually best to have the majority of your oil use resigned to those derived from seeds and plants, especially as those tend to contain the added benefit of antioxidants.

Vegetable Oil
Vegetable oil is a widely seen variety used as a “catch-all” for any common plant-based cooking oil. You’ll see most made from soybeans, but any mix of seed or vegetable material can be made into this refined product. The result is a very neutral oil, low in saturated fats, with a higher smoke point of 450 degrees F and no cholesterol. It’s no surprise it makes a great (and cost effective) oil for frying or sauteing!

Canola Oil
Canola oil is a plant based oil made from canola seeds derived from a variety of the rapeseed plant. This is another example of a pleasantly neutral seed oil, and it’s usually seen chemically refined, giving it a higher smoke point of 400-450 degrees F. As canola is sourced from a singular main ingredient, you’ll see canola oil be considered healthier across the board, as it’s low in saturated fats and high in monounsaturated fats. This oil can rest in your pantry as a versatile option for anything requiring high heat cooking or as a simple finisher.

Olive Oil
The choice for anything from roasting some pork shoulder to dressing a fresh-picked vegetable salad, the versatile olive oil has remained a staple in kitchens for years, and will remain for years to come. The oil comes labeled as different types, each with its own level of quality. The popular extra-virgin olive oil is the highest quality, unrefined and made without the use of heat to coax the oil from the olives, a process known as “cold-pressing”. The lesser levels of quality are titled “virgin”, “refined”, and “extra-light”, with the latter being the lesser quality. These oils are usually chemically refined, but they all contain healthy fats and antioxidants and have a higher smoke point than many others at 350 degrees F.

Avocado Oil
Avocado oil keeps the same neutral flavor that the avocado has, which makes it great for cooking. What makes it one of the most popular oils, however, is that refined avocado oil is equally as versatile as olive oil, but with a much higher smoke point at around 520 degrees F. Avocado is considered one of the healthiest options, as it comes packed with simple, monounsaturated fats. This oil’s buttery texture makes it perfect for grilling a fresh cut of steak or for a savory piece of freshly toasted sourdough.

Peanut Oil
Peanut oil is a great example of a plant-based oil that takes more of its source ingredient to the end of its final product. Opening a bottle of peanut oil will greet you with a highly aromatic peanuty smell, which has its pros and cons, as it will remain in whatever you use it for. Boasting a high smoke point of 450-475 degrees F, this oil has found a home in many kitchens that treat their french fries as the main course. Like many plant-based oils, it’s high in monounsaturated fat and Vitamin E.

Sesame Oil
Sesame oil takes a page from peanut oil’s book, as it’s similarly a highly aromatic oil. Commonly refined, this healthy oil’s smoke point trends high – 410-450 degrees F – making it a boon for high-heat cooking. This oil’s pleasant scent lends itself to stir fry dishes and makes a fantastic finishing oil to a bowl of noodles, a rich bowl of ramen, or a vinaigrette, sauce, or marinade.

Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is primarily used in baking. As it’s rendered solid at room temperature, it’s generally not considered great for anything outside of cooking or baking and has a smoke point of around 350 degrees F, getting up to 400 degrees F for the refined version. While a fun oil to try at home, it’s good to note that it’s considered the highest in saturated fats and can lead to heart disease if eaten consistently.

The world of cooking oil is ever-growing. Having a sound knowledge of which oil is best to use will not only ensure the smoke detectors in your home remain silent, but experimenting with differently processed oils for different dishes can unlock flavor combinations you won’t see by sticking to the simple and common varieties.

Be sure to test out as many as you can and get creative!