How to Choose the Right Oil for Cooking and Baking

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: When it comes to cooking and baking with oil, it's all about finding Mr. Right.

Walking into the oil aisle is a sensory overload: all of those glistening bottles lined neatly in a row, their labels brimming with information. Once upon a time, the decision would have been made for you -- vegetable oil or nothing -- but these days, you have to process loads of information when picking out your purchase. Do you want refined or unrefined? Olive oil or canola? And boy, does the packaging on the pistachio oil look appealing or what?

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There are two elements you should take into account when choosing oil:

  1. The flavor of the oil
  2. The temperature at which it will be cooked

For frying, the cardinal rule of oil selection is to pick an oil with a smoke point -- the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke -- that is higher than the frying temperature the recipe calls for.

Before you venture down the oil aisle, you should also know that:

  • Smoke points range from 200 to 400° F and also depend on how the oil was pressed, filtered, and refined. Because less processed oils have lower smoke points, refined oils are generally more suitable for high temperature cooking.
  • Most foods are fried between 350 and 400° F. If you choose oils with a smoke point above 400° F, you're in the clear.
  • Oil that starts to smoke will eventually catch on fire, but even oil that smokes and does not go up in flames will lose its flavor and its potential health benefits.
  • You don't necessarily need a thermometer to monitor oil temperature. As oil heats, it will become fragrant and shimmery and will seem thinner than when you poured it from the bottle. When you notice all of these signs, the oil is approaching its smoke point and is hot enough to cook with. When you add the food, you'll automatically lower the oil's temperature and prevent it from reaching the smoke point.

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Don't panic just yet. We've made a handy list that splits up the oils by application, with a brief blurb on each type:

For dressing and drizzling:

  • Nut oils -- like walnut, dark sesame, and roasted peanut oil or, if you're splurging, pistachio, hazelnut, pumpkin seed, and pecan oil -- are all best in cold dishes. Heat destroys their delicate, distinct flavors.

  • Flavored or scented oils -- like wasabi, porcini, lemon, and truffle oil -- are generally expensive products where a little goes a long way.

For low-heat or warming (as well as dressings and drizzlings):

  • Olive oil has a low smoke point, making it unsuitable for deep-frying. Use it in dressings, garnishes, and for low-heat cooking. And don't write it off for baking either: granola and plum cake wouldn't be the same without it.

  • Sesame oil comes in 2 varieties, light and dark. The light version has a mild nutty flavor and can be used for frying. Dark sesame oil, great for dressings, dipping sauces, and seasonings, has a stronger flavor and a low smoke point. Monitor it carefully if using it to cook.

For baking and low-heat cooking:

  • Coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, can be substituted for butter to create vegan-friendly dishes.

  • Butter may not be an oil, but we simply can't leave it out. Get the wonderful flavor of butter while side-stepping its low smoke point by mixing it with other oils, like olive oil, when cooking.

  • Vegetable, canola, safflower, and sunflower oil are also often used in baked goods.

For high-heat applications, frying, sautéing, and searing:

Neutral oils:

  • Vegetable oil is an umbrella term for plant-based oils. It will likely contain soybean oil, but may also be made from cottonseed, sunflower, or safflower oil (or a combination). It is neutral-tasting, all-purpose, and great for baking and high-heat frying.

  • Safflower oil is almost flavorless and has a high smoke point (520° F). It can be used as a substitute for vegetable oil and, because it does not solidify when chilled, is also great for salad dressings.

  • Canola oil, made from rapeseeds, is cheap and popular, but can turn rancid quickly. Use it as a substitute for vegetable oil, but note that some cooks consider it to have a slightly off flavor.

  • Rice bran oil is more expensive than other neutral oils, but has gained popularity for its health benefits and among cooks concerned about GMOs in other types of oil. Plus, in a Cook's Illustrated taste test, rice bran oil put canola oil to shame, especially at high temperatures.

  • Corn oil, almost tasteless and able to withstand high temperatures without smoking, is useful for all-purpose cooking. Unrefined corn oil will have a more distinct corn flavor.

  • Grapeseed oil is a a winemaking by-product that's neutral and versatile. Use it for sautéing, pan-frying, grilling, roasting.

  • Peanut oil is different from its fellow nut oils in that it has a much milder flavor and much hihger smoking point. It's good for deep-frying, pan-frying, grilling, and roasting. Refined peanut oil is Cook's Illustrated number one choice for deep-frying. (Unrefined peanut oil, which comes in small, expensive bottles, is not suitable for frying and is much more flavorful).

The others:

  • Avocado oil has many of the same health benefits of olive oil but has the advantage of a high smoke point (520° F), making it more suitable for high-temperature applications.

  • Apricot kernel oil may be better known for its use in skin care and massage, but in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman calls it out as ideal for high-heat roasting and cooking.

What are your favorite oils to use in the kitchen? Tell us in the comments below.

Photos by James Ransom