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What Cooking Oil Should I Use and Why?

The number of different cooking oils can be confusing. There are about seven different kinds of olive oil, alone! Does it matter if you’re cooking with canola oil or peanut oil, or are all oils interchangeable?

The fact is, the oil you use can make a massive difference in the dish you’re making. Today, we’re going to break down a few important factors to consider when you’re picking out a cooking oil, so you can maximize the flavor and health of your dish!

Heat

The temperature that we use to cook meals influences many aspects of the final dish. Certain ingredients cannot be cooked at high heats, while others are best when seared or heated up very quickly. In this instance, not all oils are alike. Some oils can withstand much higher temperatures than others, which makes them good for deep frying or searing.

A smoke point is where the oil (or any fat) begins to burn and produce a smoke.

So, what happens if you use an oil that can’t take the heat? Well, eventually, you reach an oil’s smoke point. A smoke point is where the oil (or any fat) begins to burn and produce a smoke. Once that smoke point is reached and the oil begins to burn, it will create a bitter, burnt flavor based on what type of food is being cooked. At the same time, the more a cooking oil or fat hits its smoke point, the more a smoke point can degrade. Finally, the fat begins to break down as it burns, releasing free radicals into the cooked ingredients.

Different fats can have wildly differing smoke points, which influences the ways you can cook. Cooking oils that are unrefined, virgin, or extra virgin tend to have much lower smoke points. Alternatively, refined, vegetable, or nut oils — like refined olive oil, corn oil, or peanut oil — tend to have higher smoke points.

Flavor

Another important detail to consider when deciding which cooking oil or fat to use is the flavor of the fat. While many oils are fairly neutral, mostly refined, oils, some do carry a distinct flavor that they can impart on a dish. The opposite of tends to be virgin or unrefined oils. The reason for this is as oils become refined, many of the compounds that give them a distinct flavor are stripped out.

There are positives and negatives to both neutral and flavored oils. Use neutral oils when you want the flavors of the ingredients to shine through. It doesn’t hurt that many neutral oils have high smoke points, making them perfect for high-temperature cooking when you’ll likely want the flavor of the ingredients to be the star of the dish.

It doesn’t hurt that many neutral oils have high smoke points, making them perfect for high-temperature cooking.

Alternatively, cooking oils with more robust or strong flavors can be invaluable ingredients in and of themselves. Many nut oils maintain some of the nutty flavor, which can be a nice addition to certain meats or starches. Sesame oil, especially toasted sesame oil, can elevate many Asian dishes. Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, can have a buttery, grassy flavor that pairs well with many herbs. Some of these oils are even best used after the food is cooked, drizzling over the finished dish to add some final flavor. Just remember, when used wisely, flavor-forward oils can take your dish to the next level but misusing them can cause clashing flavor combinations.

Check out the table at the end of the article to see what oils are neutral and what they taste like. Also, don’t be afraid to try some before using it, so that you can develop your own sense of what works and what doesn’t!

Health

How healthy a cooking oil is, has been discussed a lot lately. As we focus more on the quality of the food we eat and how healthy our cooking methods are, many people will want to know that they’re making all the healthy tweaks that they can. Cooking oils have rightfully received much of the spotlight, since many of the unhealthy fats we take in come from these unhealthy oils. These unhealthy oils tend to be refined oils, since many of the health benefits are processed out of the oil as they’re refined. This leaves mostly the unhealthy fats and calories, which can lead to heart problems and weight gain.

These unhealthy oils tend to be refined oils, since many of the health benefits are processed out of the oil as they’re refined.

That said, there are some oils that offer many health benefits that may tip the scales to use them over others. For example, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil are rich in monounsaturated fats, healthy fatty acids, that make them worth using. If you’re using a cooking method that calls on you to use a refined or unhealthy oil, we’ve covered ways you can improve the health of many of these dishes in our Healthy Hacks for Your Favorite Snacks and Getting Creative with Comfort Food series.

Ultimately, a healthy diet will include a mix of cooking oils, using them for their flavor and practical factors that set them apart from each other. To improve both your cooking and dietary health when using cooking oils, be mindful of your food and research your oils before using them. This can allow you to maximize the potential of each dish you make!

Medicareful Cooking Oil Cheat Sheet

Common Cooking Oil/Fat Smoke Point Flavor
Extra Virgin Olive Oil 325°F Ranges from grassy and spicy to smooth and buttery
Olive Oil 465°F Leans on the smooth and buttery side
Vegetable Oil 400°F Neutral
Peanut Oil 450°F Neutral with a light peanuty taste
Sesame Oil 410°F Nutty, a little bit goes a long way
Canola Oil 400°F Neutral
Avocado Oil 520°F Light buttery, avocado taste
Coconut Oil 350°F Creamy with a hint of coconut
Butter 350°F Creamy, rich flavor
Clarified Butter 450°F Every flavor of butter, heightened
Cooking Method Average Temperature
Searing 400°F to 450°F
Roasting 400°F to 450°F
Deep Frying 350°F to 375°F
Sautee 320°F
Pan fry 350°F to 400°F