Food & Drink

Every Important Cooking Oil You Need to Know About and How to Use It

Say goodbye to plain vegetable oil.

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 mystifying, and that's not even considering the cooking-oil stockpiles at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. These days, there are a lot of options. Avocado oil from avocados, sunflower oil from sunflowers, and canola oil from, uh, canolas we guess? They all have different characteristics and can be used to enrich your cooking and dishes in a myriad of ways. Here's everything you need to know about the basics:

Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO)

Best for: Drizzling over other delicious things, salad dressing, dips
Smoke point: 320 F. But EVOO doesn't work great for high-temp cooking because the heat will ruin the flavor, even if it isn't quite smoking yet. 
EVOO gets made via cold-pressing, meaning it’s pressed at temperatures no higher than 80.5 F. Higher temperatures produce more oil, which is what makes EVOO more expensive. The cold-pressing method maintains more antioxidants and monounsaturated fats intact that makes for a far more robust and complex flavor profile. Depending on the region, the flavors can be buttery, fruity, grassy, or bitter. 

Olive oil extra virgin cooking temperature
DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock

Olive oil

Best for: Sautéing, pan-frying, making salad dressings
Smoke point: 465 F
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 a high smoke point and good working texture to make it among the most versatile of cooking oils. Because it has a relatively neutral nose and palate, it’s also your go-to for infusing with garlic, pepper, and other flavors.

Coconut oil

Best for: Baking, low-heat roasting, and sautéing
Smoke point: 359 F
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 serve as 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. Coconut oil is also good as a body or hair oil, so feel free to moisturize. 

Sesame oil

Best for: Sautéing or adding to pickled salads
Smoke point: 410 F
Sesame oil has a nutty aroma that carries through in its actual flavor. You'll find it as an ingredient used in pickled Korean cucumbers or dressing cold noodles and salads. Additionally, it has a middle-high smoke point, which makes it a strong choice for coating your fry pan or wok before plunking down meat or veggies. That being said, sesame oil is pretty strong in flavor; a little goes a long way, so partner it with a neutral-tasting oil if you need to do a deeper fry.

Peanut oil

Best for: Nut-friendly dishes, especially at high heat like in a stir fry
Smoke point: 440 F
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. Just be aware: 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.

Vegetable/corn/canola oil

Best for: Frying and deep frying
Smoke point: 450 F
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.

Grapeseed oil

Best for: Emulsified recipes and low-temperature sautéing
Smoke point: 420 F
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 and doesn't separate at lower temperatures, so it’s especially good for making sauces, dressings, and mayonnaise. Try making garlic confit with it.

Avocado oil

Best for: Grilling
Smoke point: 510 F
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.

Sunflower/safflower oil

Best for: Substitution for vegetable oil
Smoke point: 440 F
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. You'll also find that it's a bit more buttery than your typical canola oil. 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.

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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.