Every Question You've Ever Had About Cooking Oils, Answered

Turn up the heat!

Browsing the oil aisle of your local market can be an overwhelming experience. There are so many factors to consider in choosing a cooking oil: smoke point, flavor profile, intended cooking method, health considerations. It’s almost enough to make you ditch the shopping cart and just order a pizza. If you’ve ever found yourself standing paralyzed in front of the dazzling array of colorful bottles, wondering what oil to use for the recipe you’ve planned for dinner, or what oils should keep on hand in your kitchen, this article is for you.

Smoke Point: One of the most common conversations around cooking oils is the smoke point. But what is a smoke point, anyway? The smoke point is the heat at which the solids in the oil begin to burn and denature. All oils will eventually smoke, but each type of cooking oil has a different temperature threshold based on its composition that determines the ideal cooking method that particular oil should be used for.

Other than the annoyance of dealing with a smoky kitchen and a blaring fire alarm, avoiding crossing over an oil’s smoke point has health benefits, as well. When an oil starts to smoke, it releases free radicals, which have been linked to human diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease. No need to panic if your oil gets smoky every once in a while, but it’s best to avoid contact exposure.

Storage: Another factor to be aware of is how you store your cooking oil, and for how long. Different oils have different shelf lives. Olive oil, for example, will oxidize more quickly than coconut oil. To make sure your oil doesn’t turn rancid, avoid storing it right next to the stove or above the oven, keeping it away from heat in a cool, dark location (like a kitchen cabinet) with the cap on tightly. If your oil has a soapy, metallic or bitter smell, it’s gone bad and should be thrown out.

Health: From a nutrition standpoint, all the oils listed here have about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, but their individual health properties can vary quite a bit.

Let’s break down the health differences, common usages, and other tips and tricks some of the most commonly-used household cooking oils:

Olive Oil

You are probably already familiar with this kitchen utility player, lauded for both its health benefits as a staple of the mediterranean diet and its versatile, fruity flavor profile. It’s a common misconception that you can’t saute with olive oil. You can, just do so at a low to medium heat. A good-quality olive oil is also perfect for drizzling on top of finished dishes for an extra pop of flavor or even infusing vodka for cocktails.

Smoke Point: 320°F

Best for: Salad dressings and cold dishes, sauteing and roasting at low to medium temperatures.

Health Considerations: High in oleic acid, a healthy fatty acid that can lower the risk of heart disease; rich in polyphenols, which has been shown to reduce the prevalence of certain types of cancer.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil has a very high smoke point compared to other oils, so it’s going to be your go-to for times when you are using a high temperature to cook, everything from frying to wok stir fries. Avocado oil has a very neutral taste, which makes it also easy to use in salad dressings, marinades, or homemade mayonnaise in place of vegetable oil.

Smoke Point: 520°F

Best for: Roasting, sauteing, frying, searing, and any other high-heat cooking method. Also can be used in cold dishes and salad dressings

Health Considerations: High in oleic acid; improves absorption of carotenoids (healthy antioxidants) in foods, meaning that when you have avocado oil with your meal you’re maximizing your body’s ability to soak in the healthy qualities of the fruits and vegetables you’re consuming.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has taken the internet by storm in recent years, with bloggers discovering myriad uses outside of the kitchen ranging from eye makeup remover to DIY cleaning products. Its solid consistency at room temperatures, similar to butter, means coconut oil isn’t practical for cold dishes or in salad dressings. Virgin coconut oil can have a tropical taste when heated, but a refined variety will be undetectable.

Smoke Point: 350°F

Best for: Roasting or sauteing at medium temperatures, in baked goods as a dairy substitute.

Health Considerations: High in medium chain triglycerides (MCT), which can help rev up your metabolism, are easier to digest than other fatty sources, and have been shown to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Keep in mind, however, that coconut oil is a form of saturated fat.

Refined Vegetable and Seed Oils

Oils such as safflower, canola, sunflower and soybean are commonly used in the commercial food system for their long shelf-life, high smoke point, neutral taste, and cheap price point. As opposed to a pressed oil, refined vegetable and seed oils are extracted through synthetic chemical extraction methods and can sometimes go through bleaching and deodorizing processes. While useful for occasional deep-frying and high-heat sauteing, many health-conscious cooks prefer to stay away from refined vegetable and seed oils due to their lack of nutrients and highly processed nature.

Smoke Point: 400°F to 450°F depending on the exact blend of oils used.

Best for: Frying and other high-heat cooking methods.

Health Considerations: High in Omega-6 fatty acids, which has been linked to an increased risk for heart disease, low in overall nutrient content.

Sesame Seed Oil

While sesame seed oil is technically a vegetable oil, it is a much healthier alternative to the refined oils mentioned above. If you can find it, try out Benne Oil, a heritage variety of the sesame seed that’s making a major comeback in foodie circles. Regular sesame oil has a relatively neutral flavor, while toasted sesame oil will provide a nutty flavor, especially well-suited for Asian-inspired dishes like this slow-cooked pork with noodles.

Smoke Point: 410°F

Best for: Good all-purpose oil for sauteing, roasting, grilling and frying.

Health Considerations: Heart-healthy fatty acid profile; rich in vitamins E and K; lowers blood pressure.

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