Confused About Cooking Oils? Bookmark This Guide.

Cooking oils are a chef's secret weapon. But with so many to choose from, picking the best cooking oil can be intimidating. Our Test Kitchen answers your basic cooking queries.

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Sautéing, marinating, drizzling, roasting or frying—it seems almost every recipe calls for oil. While the difference may seem insignificant, not all cooking oils are equal, and it’s important to know one from another. With so many types of cooking oil, where do you start?

We have you covered with this helpful guide to vegetable oil, coconut oil, olive oil and a few types in between. Let’s clear up the confusion once and for all.

Psst: Have you heard of the air fryer? It’s one way you can skip cooking with oil.

How to Choose the Best Cooking Oil:

When choosing an oil to cook with it’s important to keep three things in mind:

  • Temperature
  • Flavor
  • Price point

Some oils perform well at high temperatures, while others just can’t take the heat. Some oils don’t like any heat at all and lose their flavor completely when hot. Some come in decorative cut-glass bottles and some stay in plastic jugs in the back of the pantry for years.

What is smoke point?

One key to picking the right cooking oil is understanding smoke point. This is the temperature at which oil starts to burn and smoke. Every cooking fat, be it butter, margarine or canola oil, has a smoke point. When you cook an oil past that point—a big mistake that could set off your smoke alarm—it will taste scorched or rancid. If you’re cooking with high heat, be sure to use an oil with a high smoke point. If you’re cooking with low heat, feel free to use an oil with a lower smoke point. Stay safe with our guide to preventing kitchen fires.

Common Cooking Oils

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Vegetable oil

With a smoke point between 400º and 450º, vegetable oil is the best bet for deep-frying. A neutral oil made from various ingredients (including soybeans, sunflower seeds, corn, canola, sesame and more), it imparts little to no flavor and helps achieve crispy, crunchy textures.

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Canola oil

Another neutral oil, canola is the jack-of-all-trades in the oil aisle. Perfect for searing, frying, browning or roasting, this oil has a smoke point of 400º. Canola is a varietal of the rapeseed plant that was developed in the 1960s using natural crossbreeding.

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Olive oil

After temperature, flavor is the most important variable in selecting the right oil for a dish. Who doesn’t love dipping crusty bread in salty, rich, herb-infused olive oil or spreading softened butter onto grilled sweet corn? Some fats are more enjoyable when they’re the star of the show. One of the most distinctive cooking fats out there, olive oil comes in a variety of flavors, textures and colors. Some are grassy and green while others are smoky and golden.

Extra virgin olive oil has one of the lowest smoke points (starting at 325º) and scores big points drizzled over a light salad or grilled vegetables. Comparatively, virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point, clocking in around 420º, and extra light olive oil’s smoke point is even higher.

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Coconut oil

This is one of the few cooking oils that is solid at room temperature, which makes it a poor choice for vinaigrettes or other dressings. In the past few years, coconut oil has experienced a surge in popularity thanks to its purported health benefits. Because of their similar textures and its slight coconut flavor, it’s a popular substitute for butter in baked goods and desserts; it can also be used in place of vegetable-based oils for making stovetop popcorn.

Cuisines of India, the Philippines, the Caribbean and many other countries and regions have long taken advantage of this tasty oil. However you use it, be sure not to exceed its smoke point of 350º.

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Other Fats for Cooking:

Butter

Ah…the creamiest, saltiest and meltiest of all cooking fats. Butter is at the heart of so many cuisines and plays a big part in many of the world’s most flavorful foods. (Hello, pastries!) It’s no secret that nearly all baked goods, sauces and sautés are better with a dollop of butter. Of course, butter does well either cold or warm, but be sure to keep it at a low heat when cooking, because it burns at 350º. This smoke point makes it perfect for poaching, roasting and sautéing.

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Clarified butter

Unlike its unclarified counterpart, clarified butter can handle some of the highest cooking temperatures, with a smoke point of 450º. Made by stripping butter of its water and milk fats, clarified butter, also known as ghee, is less likely to burn or scorch but keeps the rich buttery flavor we all know and love.

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Is cooking oil healthy?

When we consider which fats are the healthiest, overall recommendations have not changed much in recent years despite the rising popularity of different types of fats on supermarket shelves. Unsaturated fats, including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, are healthier and should be consumed more than or in place of saturated and trans fats. (Here’s the difference between good fat and bad fat.)

This general recommendation is supported by the World Health Organization, American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, USDA and more. It’s important to note, however, that all fat is calorie-dense and should be moderated in order to maintain a healthy weight, which is paramount to overall health. Are you eating enough healthy fat?

What cooking oils should you pay more for?

Cooking oils can cost you a pretty penny, but if you’re smart about your purchase you’ll be able to save money without sacrificing flavor. Here are a few helpful tips on how to save money at the grocery store.

When to save:

Though tempting, be careful of marketing gimmicks like fancy glass bottles or creative packaging that could drive up the price of your oil. Oftentimes the best brands will use the most basic packaging.

When it comes to olive oil for day-to-day sautéing, Taste of Home Culinary Director Sarah Farmer recommends buying a mid-range variety “I don’t care if it’s extra virgin,” she says. “Most of the time, I end up using regular old grocery-store canola oil.”

For deep-fried favorites like our best-ever fried chicken, don’t grab a pricey oil—look to the reliable and stable canola oil. It may not be fancy, but it gets the job done.

When to splurge:

Our Test Kitchen experts agree it’s totally worth it to spend a few extra bucks on a small bottle of good-quality EVOO. Pick one with a flavor you love (there are many gourmet shops that’ll let you try before you buy). Says Sarah, “Save the good stuff for dressings, drizzling and bread-dipping.”

Don’t worry, even this splurge won’t break the bank. The average grocery store will sell these small bottles for $20 or less.

Every oil has its own set of strengths and weaknesses. When you get to know them, you’ve mastered the professional chef’s secret weapon.

Next up, the must-have kitchen tools according to celebrity chefs.

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Laura Denby
Laura is a New York-based freelance food writer with a degree in Culinary Arts from the Institute of Culinary Education and a degree in Journalism from Penn State. Her work has appeared in Taste of Home, Chowhound, the Culture Trip and Patch.