It seems like the simplest thing: Grab a bottle of oil and get cooking. But the cooking fats section of the grocery store now has a dizzying array of choices. What oils are you meant to use? Can you just use olive oil for everything? Here’s a guide to which oils are best for different types of cooking, so you can stock up and be ready no matter what.
Remember: Fats are essential to good health, so don’t be shy in cooking with them. Stick to unrefined oils that have undergone the least possible processing – in other words, avoid vegetable oils, vegetable shortening, margarine, non-dairy “butter” and any product that says “hydrogenated” on the label (these are trans fats).
What is a “smoke point,” anyway?
You may have seen this term before; it refers to the temperature at which a cooking oil will start to visibly smoke.
This is important information because even the healthiest oils lose their benefits when they smoke. When an oil starts smoking, that means it’s begun to break down – and it’s producing free radicals that are harmful to the body. Plus, smoking oil may give your food a burned or bitter taste. This is nature telling you not to heat oil past its smoke point.
This is why it’s so important to choose the right oil depending on what you’re cooking, so you can avoid the smoke.
If you want to stock fewer types of oils in your kitchen pantry, you can use oils with a high smoke point for lower-heat applications. Here’s a handy guide that highlights which oils work best at different temperatures:
For stir-frying, searing meat and other applications where you’re cranking the heat, reach for avocado oil. It has a high smoke point, around 500ºF, so it works for higher-temperature cooking. Plus, avocado oil is neutrally flavored, so it’s versatile. Healthwise, avocado oil is a good source of vitamin E. It’s anti-inflammatory, good for heart health, and may help lower blood pressure.
Ghee, or clarified butter, has a smoke point of around 450ºF, so it’s also a great option for higher-heat cooking.
Low to moderate heat
For a quick, light saute, or for roasting, extra virgin olive oil is a great choice. Its smoke point is around 375ºF, so you can use it safely at medium or lower temperatures. Olive oil is also delicious drizzled onto foods and in sauces and dressings.
Coconut oil is another good option, with a smoke point around 350ºF. Unrefined coconut oil will impart a coconut flavor, so only use it if you enjoy that. If you do, it’s great in curries and sauces.
In terms of health, you already know that olive oil is a superhero. Coconut oil, on the other hand, has sparked some controversy in recent years because of its saturated fat content. But we stand by its benefits, which include blood sugar regulation, immunity-boosting, and antibacterial properties.
Some oils are meant to be added after cooking or used in other applications where there’s no heat. These oils, which include seed and nut oils like hazelnut, walnut, pistachio and sesame oils, are called finishing oils. With a lower smoke point than oils traditionally used for cooking, and tend to lose their flavor when heated.
Keep these oils out of dishes that require heat, or use them once you’ve taken your recipes off the stove. You can drizzle toasted sesame oil over a stir fry after cooking, whisk walnut or hazelnut oil into a salad dressing or stir a little pistachio oil into rice or another grain before serving.
What about baking with oils?
We often think first about butter when it comes to baking (and with good reason), but oils can be delicious in baked goods. Olive oil adds a luscious, slightly savory edge to muffins, cakes, and granola (as well as being the star in focaccia). Coconut oil lends richness and coconut flavor to all kinds of baked goods. You can also use neutrally-flavored avocado oil in any recipe that calls for vegetable oil.
Have more questions about choosing and cooking with different oils? Keep reading to learn more: