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Here's a secret about cooking: A simple dish can outshine any complicated culinary creation, if executed perfectly. That's why the key to producing a truly excellent meal lies in mastering the basics. And using the right cooking oil is a good place to start.
But how do you choose from all the different types of cooking oil that line the grocery store shelves? What are we to make of the suspiciously solid jars of coconut oil sitting side-by-side with good ol' EVOO?
When you're considering cooking oils, there are three main factors to consider. First, all oils have a smoke point, which causes smoke to rise from the surface of the oil when it hits a certain temperature. This isn't always a bad thing, but when oil reaches its smoke point, it starts to break down, producing chemicals that can make food taste burnt and acrid. This means you'll want to use oils with a higher smoke point if you're planning to get them scorching hot.
You'll also want to consider the flavor of your oil. There are plenty of neutral oils that won't mix with the seasoning of your food, while options like sesame oil will lend anything it touches a rich, nutty taste. Choose wisely, and your oil will enhance your dish, instead of adding a bizarre flavoring element.
Finally, health is definitely a concern for many when it comes to choosing the right cooking oil. Some oils are full of bad fats and high in cholesterol, while others abound with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and healthy minerals. In other words, there are times when you may want to drown your veggies in a pool of fatty, delicious butter, and there are times when you may want to pick a drizzle of low-cholesterol canola oil. The choice is yours.
So which oil to pick? We've researched the smoke points, flavors, and health benefits of a variety of popular cooking oils so you don't have to.
Canola oil is a neutral oil with a smoke point of 400°F. That's pretty high, so a lot of cooks use it for frying—but since other oils stand up to even higher heat, we're inclined to save canola for medium-heat tasks like sautéing. It's also a good oil to use in baking when your recipe calls for a cup or two of neutral oil.
Canola oil is low in saturated fat and contains cholesterol-lowering fats and omega-3s, earning it a qualified health claim from the FDA.
Corn oil is another neutral option, with a 450°F smoke point that makes it a great choice for frying or searing. While there's some debate over its healthiness, corn oil is rife with omega-6 fatty acids, cholesterol-lowering phytosterols, and vitamin E.
Another member of the neutral oil family, sunflower oil has a high smoke point of 440°F and is high in vitamin E and omega-6 fatty acids. It's very popular for frying and searing, so get this oil scorching hot without hesitation.
A neutral oil with a 450°F smoke point, soybean oil is another great option for deep-frying. Also popular for baking, it's high in omega-6 fatty acids and vitamin K. There are some rumors about its negative health effects, but most consider it a healthy oil.
Where would we be without rich, fruity olive oil? Smoke points vary depending on how your oil has been pressed and processed, but the extra-virgin variety has a smoke point of 325°F to 375°F, making it a poor choice for high-heat cooking. We wouldn't recommend using it for higher heat baking, frying, or searing, but it's wonderful for sautéing. We also love using it unheated in salad dressings or mixtures for dipping bread.
So long as you don't overheat it, olive oil is full of health benefits and is a good source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fats.
The internet loves coconut oil, touting its health benefits as nigh on miraculous. Flavored lightly of, well, coconut, it's actually a solid at room temperature and turns to liquid at slightly higher temperatures. Make sure not to heat it too much, as it does have a low smoke point of 350°F, but between its tropical taste and heat-dependent texture, there's a lot to work with. Use it when sautéing or simmering foods that could benefit from a hint of coconut, like curries or pan-seared fish, or use as shortening when baking.
Coconut oil is high in vitamins E and K, as well as in iron. It also has antimicrobial properties as well—just be aware that despite all these health benefits, it's also quite high in saturated fat.
Peanut oil has a high smoke point of 450°F, which means it's widely used for deep-frying and other high-heat tasks. It's largely neutral, unless you purchase the roasted version, which has a strong peanut-y flavor that makes it ideal for stir-fries. Unroasted peanut oil is also ideal for stir-fries due to its high smoke point, but it won't impart much flavor on its own.
Healthwise, it's high in vitamin E and cholesterol-lowering phytosterols.
Like peanut oil, sesame oil can impart a strong, nutty flavor, making it a welcome addition to many Asian-style dishes. The toasted version is particularly flavorful, but all sesame oils are not made equal. With a smoke point ranging from 350°F to 410°F, you'll want to be careful about how you use it. In general, light sesame oil is more suited to frying than the dark variety due to its higher smoke point.
Sesame oil is high in vitamin E. Due to its high proportion of polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids, it's less likely than other oils to turn rancid when kept in the open.
Avocado oil has a mild taste. Its smoke point depends on whether it's refined or unrefined, but the refined version can have a smoke point as high as 520°F, while unrefined avocado oil can't handle quite so high a temperature. This means that avocado oil makes a good all-purpose cooking oil, suitable for sautéing, searing, stir-frying, and pretty much anything you can imagine. Bear in mind, though, it does have a subtle avocado flavor and aroma, so don't use it in any dish that requires a perfectly neutral oil.
High in potassium and vitamins, E, A, and D, it has a fat profile similar to that of olive oil.
Grape seed oil has a mild taste and is high in polyunsaturated fat, making it ideal for cooking and preparation alike. It is commonly used in salad dressings, sauces, and oil infusions. And with a relatively high smoke point of 420°F, it's a versatile oil that can serve pretty much any culinary need. Although it is a bit pricey.
This is far from a complete list, but it should include most of the options available at your local grocery store. Keep in mind, most types of cooking require some sort of oil, so it's important to experiment and build a collection of oils. It will put a wider variety of flavors, recipes, and techniques at your disposal.
It may seem easier to just reach for a bottle of generic vegetable oil and call it a day, but if you take the time to learn which oils are best for which situations, you'll be building a solid foundation for quality cooking.
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