When we're cooking, one of the first things we reach for is oil: we need it to sauté and to fry, to roast and to grill, we even use it cold to add flavor to salads and to drizzle on top of cooked meats and veggies. But are you really using cooking oil the correct way? If you’re following the majority of recipes out there, the answer is probably not.
Not all cooking oils are created alike. Some hold up really well when heated but don’t have too much flavor on their own. Others are big on aroma but quickly smoke and burn when they come into contact with a flame.
The key when deciding which oil to use for what purpose is the oil's smoke point. Each cooking oil has a different smoke point: the point at which the oil begins to burn. At this point, not only does the oil impart a burnt flavor to the foods you’re cooking, but the heat also breaks down the helpful phytochemicals in the oil and may even render it carcinogenic.
For this reason, it's very important to choose the right oil for the right purpose. Luckily, we've got you covered.
High Heat Cooking Oils
When frying, grilling, and broiling, you want an oil that can stand up to the heat. These oils all have a high smoke point, making them safe to use for high-heat cooking.
Avocado oil image via Shutterstock
1. Avocado Oil
Avocado oil may be the best oil out there for high-heat cooking. With a smoke point of 520 degrees F, avocado oil can be used for searing, frying, grilling and roasting. Avocado oil also contains omega-9 oleic fatty acids, which are excellent anti-inflammatory fatty acids. Because oleic acid is resistant to oxidation, avocado oil doesn't go rancid quite as quickly as many other oils.
2. Light Olive Oil
Light olive oil is a refined olive oil with a more neutral taste than its extra-virgin cousin. Light olive oil is a great choice for high heat cooking, given its 470 degree F smoke point. It imparts a slight flavor when used, but nowhere near as strong as extra-virgin. It's great for Italian and other Mediterranean dishes.
3. Peanut Oil
Long a favorite for deep-frying, peanut oil boasts a 450 degree F smoke point. Peanut oil has recently become less popular due to allergies, which is something to keep in mind when cooking for others.
4. Corn Oil
Refined corn oil is a good choice for frying, with a 450 degree F smoke point. It’s used in most commercial kitchens, thanks to its low price point, but be aware that more than 90 percent of American corn is genetically modified.
5. Almond Oil
Almond oil’s 430 degree F smoke point makes it a great oil for high-heat cooking, but its nutty flavor also makes it great as a finishing oil. Given its vitamin E content (5.3 mg in a tablespoon) and the fact that it’s high in monounsaturated fat and low in saturated fat, we love almond oil as an all-purpose pantry oil.
6. Sunflower Oil
With a 440 degree F smoke point, refined sunflower oil is a great neutral option for any high-heat cooking. We love using it to sear salmon or steak, so that the flavors of the ingredients can shine.
7. Sesame Oil
Sesame oil’s high smoke point of 410 degrees F makes it great for high-heat cooking. Don’t confuse sesame oil with it’s nuttier cousin, toasted sesame oil, which has a lower smoke point and a much stronger taste that will dramatically change the flavor profile of any recipe. Also be aware that no matter which sesame oil you choose, it tends to have a strong flavor and is best mixed with a neutral cooking oil like sunflower oil.
Medium Heat Cooking Oils
The average home stove and oven typically cook at between 250 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that for sautéing and roasting, it's best to choose a cooking oil whose smoke point is in this range, preferably at the higher end.
Extra-virgin olive oil image via Shutterstock
8. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Color us surprised, right? After its day in the sun, we started hearing rumors that extra-virgin olive oil breaks down at high temperatures, making it carcinogenic. But it turns out that as long as you keep the heat low -- no more than 410 degrees F -- extra-virgin olive oil is a great cooking oil.
That said, heat does break down some of the vitamin E in extra-virgin olive oil, though a study to this end showed that, for the most part, these compound remained in tact.
9. Grapeseed Oil
Another neutral oil, grapeseed oil’s 420 degree F smoke point makes it great for sautéing, baking, and frying. This is one of our favorite neutral cooking oils, as long as you're keeping an eye on omega-6 fatty acids in the rest of your diet. The level of omega-6 in grapeseed oil can throw off the careful omega balance in your diet if you're consuming too many omega-6 fatty acids elsewhere.
10. Canola Oil
Another surprise – while many believe that canola oil is a high-heat oil, it’s actually better for medium heat, with its 400 degree F smoke point. As canola oil is fairly mild in flavor, it’s best for dishes that have a strong flavor profile.
A Word About Canola Oil: Canola oil is made from rapeseeds, but it's extremely processed to remove bitter eruic acid, and 90 percent of the rapeseed crop used to make canola oil comes from GM crops. Bottom line? If you can, opt for a different oil.
11. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil’s 350 degree F smoke point (and tropical flavor) makes it great for baking, especially in place of butter. Coconut oil is one of the healthiest vegetable oils out there, with a host of health benefits including increasing good cholesterol and reducing belly fat.
Oils to Never Cook With
These oils are full of flavor, but they have relatively low smoke points, meaning that you should avoid cooking with them. They are, however, great for finishing dishes: you can drizzle them over grilled or roasted meats or vegetables or puree them into a finished soup or sauce.
Walnut oil image via Shutterstock
12. Walnut Oil
Walnut oil brings a fantastic, rich flavor to salad dressings and other dishes, but with a mere 320 degree F smoke point, you won’t want to heat it. Use walnut oil and other nut oils like pistachio oil or hazelnut oil to add flavor to cooked and cold dishes, and be sure to use sparingly -- they pack quite a flavor punch.
13. Hemp Seed Oil
Hemp seed oil imparts a rich, nutty flavor to sauces and dressings, but don’t heat it up -- with a 330 degree F smoke point, it's best used cold. You may want to cut hemp seed oil with a more neutral oil, such as grapeseed oil, so that it does not overwhelm the flavor of your dish with its slightly pungent flavor.
14. Flaxseed Oil
Flaxseed oil’s 225 degree F smoke point makes it a no-no for cooking, but it’s an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid ALA, with 7.2 g per tablespoon – over four days’ worth of the nutrient! It is often used by people on a vegan diet in place of fish oil to supplement omega-3 fatty acids.
15. Cold-Pressed Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Cold-pressed oils are a bit more costly than other oils because they are extracted at a carefully controlled temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
It’s not that you can’t heat these oils, but why would you want to? Keep your cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil as a finishing oil to take advantage of its robust flavor and naturally occurring phytochemicals such as polyphenols and vitamin E.
Buying and Storing Your Oils
Be sure when buying cooking oil to pick the purest oils you can. Many oils are actually blended, and it’s important to pay close attention to the package to make sure you’re getting what you think you paid for. You can always blend high-quality oils at home, such as combining stronger flavored oils with more neutral ones.
No matter which oils you decide to use, be sure to take good care of them. Only buy small quantities at a time, and store them in a cool, dark place like a cupboard (and not on the counter next to the cooktop).
Related on Organic Authority
How to Get All of the Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
These Hemp Oil Benefits Nourish You Inside and Out
This is Why Italians Really Love Their Extra-Virgin Olive Oil (and You Should Too)
Oil image via Shutterstock