When it comes to performance and flavor, not all cooking oils are created equal. Some perform well at high temperatures, making them ideal for frying and sautéing. Some are super flavorful, but turn rancid when heated. How to differentiate between them all? And how to store them? How long will they last? So many questions! Thankfully, we’ve got the answers. Behold: The BA guide to cooking oil.
Let’s Break It Down
Light (Sometimes Called “Pure” or “Regular”) Olive Oil
All olive oil is made by crushing the olives into a paste, then extracting the excess water from the mixture. This can be done on a stone press, but on a commercial scale, is often completed with high-tech steel machinery. Light olive oil is then treated with chemical solvents to neutralize the flavor. It’s lighter in taste and color, not calories, than straight EVOO. It has a smoke point of 465-470˚ Fahrenheit, which makes it ideal for high-heat cooking. It can be used in vinaigrettes; to add more flavor, just finish with a splash of EVOO. Making your own infused flavored oil? Use pure olive oil.
Once the olives are pressed and the oil is extracted, you’re left with extra virgin olive oil; it’s robust in flavor, and can have buttery, spicy, fruity, or grassy notes, depending on the olives point of origin. EVOO’s lower smoke point (about 325˚) means it’s not great for cooking. Depending on its place of origin, it can range in flavors from fruity to grassy to bitter and even buttery. Save it for vinaigrettes and finishing oil—we’ve been known to put it in plain yogurt as a dipping sauce. That said, many BA staffers are partial to frying their eggs in EVOO, because, well, eggs fried in EVOO are pretty delicious.
It does also make for tasty ice cream! To make olive oil ice cream, choose a fruity, herbaceous oil (rather than a spicy, peppery one), and whisk it into a traditional custard ice cream base, then process in an ice cream machine. The only thing this concoction needs is a sprinkle of sea salt.
Peanut oil is pale in color, with a nutty scent and powerful flavor. It can go rancid quickly, so store it in a cool, dry place, and use it within a few months. It’s best to buy in small batches, unless you’re doing a lot of deep-frying (we’d bust it out for this excellent skillet-fried chicken). It’s recommended for high-heat cooking (smoke point: 450˚), and in tandem with complementary flavors. It’s tasty in Asian cuisine, and often used in dishes like stir-fries and this Thai Larb.
Palm oil is a saturated fat made from the oil palm tree (not to be confused with palm kernel oil, which comes from the seeds of the same plant). It’s semi-solid at room temperature, and has made recent appearances as a substitute for trans fats in commercial baking. However, it is a very efficient frying oil with a smoke point of just under 450˚. No one would be mad, for example, if you made these spaghetti squash fritters fried in palm oil.
Refined corn oil is often used in frying, thanks to its smoke point of 450˚. It has a neutral flavor, and is used frequently in commercial kitchens, thanks to its low price point. Not sure what to use it for? French fries are a solid win, every time.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, which means it’s not ideal for vinaigrettes or as a finishing oil. It is, however, good for moderate-heat roasting. It melts and gives off a tropical scent when heated. Do not exceed its smoke point (350˚). Its similar-to-butter consistency when cold makes it good for non-dairy baked goods (although, as in the pound cake recipe above, we prefer to use both butter and coconut oil). These 13 recipes offer some great ways to cook with coconut oil, from a carrot soup to waffles.
This is typically a blend of many different refined oils, is neutral-tasting and -smelling, and has a smoke point of about 400˚ (although it can vary, depending on the oils used in the blend). Because it doesn’t add much flavor, it is good for high-heat sautéing and frying. Wanna get crispy-skinned fish or perfectly golden scallops? Veggie oil’s your guy.
Pressed from the rapeseed plant, canola oil is similar to vegetable oil in flavor, color, smoke point, and usage qualities. Both canola and vegetable oil can be used in salad dressings. Finish with EVOO for more flavor. It’ll go rancid in about one year—your nose will tell you when it’s time to toss the bottle. Store them in a cool, dark place, away from the stovetop and oven.
Grapeseed oil is light green in color, and is prized by restaurant chefs for its high smoke point (420˚)—but also for its clean, plays-well-with-others taste. It’s often used in vinaigrettes because it is less expensive than EVOO, and allows other ingredients (like specialty oils or herbs) to shine through.
High in monounsaturated fat (typically touted as a “good” fat), avocado oil has a smoke point of about 520˚, which makes it an efficient pantry item: Use it for sautéing, roasting, searing, and vinaigrettes alike. There’s no need to refrigerate it when opened, although it should be stored in a cool, dark cupboard.
Sunflower Seed Oil
With a smoke point of 440-450˚, sunflower oil is the pantry hero for all things sear- and sauté-related (like these hearty salmon steaks, for example). Because it is pressed from seeds, it does turn rancid quicker than other oils, so store it in a cool place and use within a year, max.
Sesame oil has a high smoke point (410˚) and relatively neutral flavor. It’s a great general-purpose oil (use it for sautés, roasts, and more), but if it’s a big finish you’re looking for, use its nuttier sibling, toasted sesame oil. Store it with the veggie and canola oil in a cool cupboard.
Hemp Seed Oil
Hemp seed oil has a very nutty, rich flavor and dark green color. It’s too sensitive to be heated, so skip the sauté and use it as a finishing oil for soups or grain bowls. If using it in a vinaigrette, cut with a less-intense oil. Store it in the fridge. (For more on hemp seeds and hemp seed oil, check out our guide.)
Flaxseed oil is also nutty tasting, but too much can impart a fishy, funky flavor. Use sparingly in dressings or as a finisher—it’s also great as a seasoning agent for cast-iron pans. Keep it in the fridge.
These oils are delicate in smoke point (don’t heat them at all), but they’re big on flavor. They’re a rich, luxurious addition to soups and salads (we particularly like this Blood Orange and Beet number with pumpkin seed oil). If using in a vinaigrette, don’t waste half a bottle (they’re expensive!) Make the dressing with a pure olive oil or other neutral-tasting oil, and “top it off” with the nut oil.
The chart below will be useful for your choice of cooking oil: