Once upon a time, “cooking oil” in an average American kitchen meant vegetable oil. Or maybe a clump of melted-down lard to keep the cardiologists and undertakers in caviar. If you wanted to get really fancy, maybe you had some olive oil of undefined quality for making salad dressing.
Fast forward a few decades and suddenly the variety available at your local regular grocery store ranged somewhere between “intimidating” and “enraging,” and that's not even considering the cooking-oil stockpiles at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. These days, you have a shitload of choices. Avocado oil from avocados. Canola oil from, uh, canolas we guess? Baby oil from babies. They all have different characteristics, and those characteristics sometimes even match what you’ve heard about them. Here's everything you need to know about the basics.
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Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO)
Best for: Drizzling over other delicious things, salad dressing, dips Smoke point: 320F. But do not use EVOO for high-temp cooking. It ruins the flavor. EVOO gets made via cold-pressing, meaning it’s pressed at temperatures no higher than 80.5F. Higher temperatures produce more oil more easily, which is what makes EVOO more expensive. This keeps more flavor, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fats intact and makes for a far more robust and complex flavor profile. Depending on the region, the flavors can be buttery, fruity, grassy, or bitter. Use it for those flavors, not as a texture or lubricating agent... and certainly not as a means for deep-frying stuff. Fun fact: EVOO is routinely counterfeited. There are few reliable ways to make sure yours is real other than knowing the supplier.
Best for: frying, sautéing, deep frying -- this can be your default oil for pretty much anything Smoke point: 465F If you’re in a commercial kitchen and they’re not using vegetable oil, this is what’s probably on the grills and in their pans. Regular olive oil has an unremarkable smell, high smoke point, and good working texture to make it among the most versatile of cooking oils. Because it has a neutral nose and palate, it’s also your go-to for infusing with garlic, pepper, and other flavors. Fun fact: Most regular olive oil is washed with solvents at high temperatures to neutralize the flavor. For taste, go with EVOO. But again, don't heat it!
Best for: Baking, low-heat roasting and sautéing Smoke point: 359F A combination of dubious health claims and hipster approval has gained coconut oil some spotlight of late. It even deserves some of it. Solid at room temperature, it makes for a really delicious substitute for butter in most cookies, cakes, and other baking recipes either to make a non-dairy option or just because it’s great with chocolate, banana, and other tropical flavors. For low-heat recipes, it goes especially well with chicken or sautéing veggies. Fun fact: Coconut oil is also good as a body or hair oil. You’ll see it in more than one beauty product, and will do if you run out of massage lotion on a date. Do not use as a personal lubricant.
Best for: Sautéing and frying Smoke point: 410F Although it often has a nutty aroma, sesame oil is neutral in flavor. It's also got a middle-high smoke point, which makes it a strong choice for coating your fry pan or wok before plunking down meat or veggies. It carries a lot of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids before cooking, so it does well in a salad dressing, especially one with an Asian flavor like ginger or orange. Smoked sesame oil tastes very nutty, as the heat releases more of the sesame. Use it for recipes where you want the sesame flavor to carry through. Fun fact: In Urdu, the saying “there is no oil left in this sesame” means a person is a cranky little shit.
Best for: Nut-friendly dishes, especially at high heat like in a stir fry Smoke point: 440F The best and worst thing about peanut oil is that it tastes strongly of peanut. That’s great if you’re coating your wok for some pad Thai, but not so good for coating your skillet to broil a steak. It has an exceptionally high smoke point, making it great for frying and deep-frying. Use it with dishes already amenable to peanut taste -- fried chicken, moles, and Southeast Asian dishes, for example. Fun fact: Peanut oil goes rancid faster than other oils. Buy in small bottles, and store in a cool space like a dark cabinet well away from the stove.
Best for: Frying and deep frying Smoke point: 450F Smoke point high. Price tag low. Those two reasons are why this kind of oil is the standard issue in most professional kitchens. It has almost no flavor, so whatever you cook in it tastes like itself and not the oil. Consider this your default oil, kind of like basic refined salt. Also like salt, it’s not the best in the world for your health, which is why a lot of people are opting in on the fancier, more expensive options. Use it with most recipes, but especially for fried chicken, stir-frying, and recipes that involve dunking stuff in boiling oil. Fun fatty fact: Most such oils in the USA are made from subsidized crops. Hence the low, low price.
Best for: Emulsified recipes and low-temperature sautéing Smoke point: 420F For a long time, grapeseed oil was tossed in the trash as an undesirable byproduct of winemaking, but some recent research on how it impacts your body has made it a bit of a fashion item in recent years. Its one-two punch of Vitamin E and oleic acid might cut stroke risk by as much as 73%, and there’s strong evidence it actually curbs hunger chemically when you eat even a little. It performs well and won’t separate at lower temperatures, so it’s especially good for making sauces, dressings, and mayonnaise. Fun fact: Grapeseed oil has been used for centuries as a skin moisturizer in dry climates. It's also great for your hair.
Best for: Grilling Smoke point: 510F (266C) Avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points of any oil, making it the best choice for super-high-temperature cooking: fried eggs and stir fry for example. It has a buttery flavor and texture and a high content of monounsaturated fats (the good stuff). Even though its high-temperature tolerance suggests the One True Application, it’s as versatile as olive oil. It makes a good drizzle or garnish, especially mixed into a vinaigrette. Fun fact: Studies have found the lutein in avocado oil to improve eyesight. Suck it, carrots.
Best for: Substitution for vegetable oil Smoke point: 440F (227C) Made from the pressed seeds of the sunflower (and its loser, couch-surfing little brother the safflower), this stuff has similar smoke point, flavor, and texture to vegetable, corn, and canola oils. It’s better for your health, with less bad fat and more good fat than the less expensive veggie oils. On the other hand, it goes bad quickly so you should buy it in smaller bottles. Use in the same frying, baking, and roasting applications you would vegetable oil. Fun fact: Sunflowers are freaking enormous. The tallest species of sunflower grows as tall as 30ft. That's a shitload of seeds, and a ton of oil.
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Jason Brick is a voracious reader, heroic drinker, and super-cool dad (not necessarily in that order of importance). When not testing the theoretical limits of coolness, he practices martial arts so he can beat people up for teasing him about how much he likes playing Dungeons & Dragons. Find out more at BrickCommaJason.com.