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

Use our handy cooking oil explainer guide to learn the smoke point, flavor profile, best cooking method, and health considerations of various oils.

Browsing the oil aisle of your local market can be an overwhelming experience. There are many factors to consider when choosing a cooking oil: smoke point, flavor profile, intended cooking method, and 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 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 you 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, determining the ideal cooking method for that particular oil.

Beyond the annoyance of dealing with a smoky kitchen and a blaring fire alarm, avoiding crossing over an oil's smoke point also has health benefits. When oil starts to smoke, it releases free radicals, which have been linked to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's. No need to panic if 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 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 oil doesn’t turn rancid, avoid storing it right next to the stove or above the oven, keeping it away from the heat in a cool, dark location (like a kitchen cabinet) with the cap on tightly. If oil has a soapy, metallic, or bitter smell, it’s gone bad and should be thrown away.

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 for some of the most commonly-used household cooking oils.

Olive Oil

You are probably already familiar with this kitchen utility player, lauded for 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 sauté with olive oil. You can—just do so at low to medium heat. 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, sautéing 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, 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 when using a high temperature for cooking—everything from frying to wok stir-fries. Avocado oil has a very neutral taste, also making it easy to use in salad dressings, marinades, or homemade mayonnaise in place of vegetable oil.

Smoke Point: 520 F

Best for: Roasting, sautéing, frying, searing, and any other high-heat cooking method. Can also 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, with many discovering myriad uses outside the kitchen—from eye makeup remover to DIY cleaning products. Its solid consistency at room temperature, similar to butter, means coconut oil isn’t practical for cold dishes or 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 sautéing 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 pressed oil, refined vegetable and seed oils are extracted through synthetic chemical extraction methods and can sometimes go through a bleaching and deodorizing process. While useful for occasional deep-frying and high-heat sautéing, many health-conscious cooks prefer to avoid 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 have 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 Benne Seed Oil, a heritage variety of the sesame seed that’s making a comeback in foodie circles. Regular sesame oil has a relatively neutral flavor, while toasted sesame oil provides a nutty flavor, especially well-suited for Asian-inspired dishes like these peanut noodles with edamame.

Smoke Point: 410 F

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

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

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