Your Handy Guide to Cooking Oils

By Holly Bieler
Updated on 09. Nov. 2020

The right oil can make all the difference in the kitchen. Here, we outline which oils to use for which recipes.

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When it comes to cooking, not all oils are created the same. The flavor, smoke point (when the oil begins to burn) and texture of your cooking oil has a huge impact on how your recipe will turn out in the end, and even how healthy it is. Indeed, using the wrong oil can lead it to burn, generating harmful carcinogens which ultimately show up in your food. Below, we've outlined everything you need to know about picking the right oil for what you're cooking.

It's All About the Fat

Margarine, olive oil, or butter? The most important thing is what's inside, namely the individual fatty acids contained in oils and butter. These fatty acids are responsible for the oil's flavor, texture and smoke point, or the temperature when the oil begins to burn. When an oil reaches its smoke point, the individual fatty acids become so hot they oxidize and break down, releasing a burnt, sour flavor in your food as well as dangerous carcinogens and the toxic substance acrolein.

Polyunsaturated fatty acids, a heart-healthy type of fat which supports cardiovascular health, are one of the most delicate types of fat, splitting at very low temperatures. Lighter nut oils like walnut oil and flax seed oil are some examples of oils with polyunsaturated fatty acids, and aren't great for cooking. On the other hand, monounsaturated (such as oleic acid) and saturated fats are comparatively less healthy, but have a much higher smoke point, making them good for a range of cooking techniques. Both olive oil and canola oil are examples of oils with high oleic acid levels, so are suitable for cooking even at higher temperatures.  

The Smoke Point Table

Oil Smoke point 
Argon oil 482 °F
Soybean oil 453 °F
Peanut oil 446 °F
Sesame oil 446 °F
Olive oil, refined 446 °F
Palm oil 428 °F
Palm kernel oil 428 °F
Sunflower oil 428 °F
Coconut oil 392 °F
Butter 392 °F
Grape seed oil 374 °F
Butter 347 °F
Margarine 338 °F
Rapeseed oil 320 °F

Best Oils for Frying

For frying, you'll want to pick an oil with a very high smoke point. Don't worry about healthy fatty acids or flavor here; higher-quality pressed oils like olive oil or nut oils will have too low a smoke point for most frying recipes. What's more, these kinds of oils tend to have a stronger flavor, which is not ideal for frying. Instead, look for a refined, super-light vegetable oil. Canola and peanut oils are both good options, with high smoke points and mild flavor. And honestly, the more refined the better. Your simple nondescript "vegetable oil", which usually comprises a mix of various plant-derived oils, will tend to have a very high smoke point and very little flavor, making it a perfect frying oil. 

Best Oils for Sauteing

When it comes to sauteing, look out for a higher-quality oil with good flavor, as sauted food does retain some of the flavor of the oil it's cooked in.  A saute doesn't reach super high temperatures, so a more moderate smoke point is OK here. Olive oil is probably the most popular standby when it comes to sauteing, though lighter oils like safflower and peanut oil work as well. Even lighter oils like canola oil are also fine for most sauteing recipes, although it won't imbue the dish with flavor the way richer oils like olive oil would. Sesame oil is also a great sauteing oil and adds tons of rich flavor that pairs especially well with Asian ingredients. 

Best Oils for Baking

The flavor of your oil is most important when it comes to baking. Heavier oils like olive and avocado oil or most nut-based oils have a distinctive flavor which don't go well with sweet flavors. Instead, look our for light oils with a neutral flavor, like you would use when frying. Canola oil is one of the most popular baking oils, and coconut oil and plain vegetable oil are good options too.

Best Oils for Raw Cooking

When choosing an oil for salad dressings, as a final finishing oil on top of entrees, or for any other uncooked preparations, flavor is the most important thing to keep in mind. Olive oil is one of the most popular options, with a rich taste and dense syrupy texture which emulsifies beautifully and coats even heavy foods. Even better is extra virgin olive oil, which is made from only pure cold-pressed olives, as opposed to regular olive oil which comprises a blend of cold-pressed and processed oils. The cold-pressing imbues extra virgin olive oil with more intense flavor, making it a great option for recipes that don't have a ton of ingredients. 

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