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Confused About Cooking Oils? Bookmark This Guide.

Cooking oils are a chef's secret weapon. With so many to choose from, picking the right one can be intimidating. Bookmark our guide for the answers to your basic cooking-oil queries.

By Laura Denby, Freelance Writer

Different brands and types of cooking oil such as coconut oil, peanut oil and vegetable oil lined up side-by-side on a countertop


Sauteing, marinating, drizzling or frying, it seems almost every recipe calls for oil. With so many options, choosing the right one can be intimidating. While the difference may seem insignificant, not all cooking oils are created alike, and it's important to know one from another. With so many flavors and fancy labels, where do you start?

We have you covered with this helpful guide to canola oil, coconut oil, olive oil and a few types in between.



Things to Consider

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

  • Temperature
  • Flavor
  • Price point

There are some oils that 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, gathering dust for years. Let's clear up the confusion once and for all.



Understanding Smoke Point

One key to picking the right cooking oil is understanding smoke point. This is the point 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, 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.



Common Cooking Oils

1. Vegetable oil

With a smoke point between 400 and 450 degrees, vegetable oil is the best bet for deep-frying. A neutral oil, it imparts little to no flavor and helps achieve crispy, crunchy textures.


2. 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 400 degrees.


3. 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 325 degrees*) and scores big points drizzled over a light salad or grilled vegetables.

*Comparatively, virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point, clocking in around 420 degrees, and extra light olive oil's smoke point is even higher.


4. 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 350 degrees.



Other Fats for Cooking

1. 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. It's no secret that nearly all baked goods, sauces and sautes 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 350 degrees. This smoke point makes it perfect for poaching, roasting and sauteing.

2. Clarified butter

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



A Final Note

Be aware of your price point. 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. Psst! Here are a few helpful tips on how to save money on all your items 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 sauteeing, Taste of Home Kitchen Operations Manager Beth Jacobson 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 spending a few extra bucks on a small bottle of good-quality extra virgin olive oil. Pick one whose flavor you love (there are many gourmet shops that'll let you try before you buy.) Says Beth, "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 master them, you've mastered the professional chef's secret weapon.