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Master Knowing What Cooking Oils to Use When

cooking oilsNot all oils are created equal. When you’re getting ready to cook up a storm, the landscape of cooking oils can be confusing to navigate. Ideal for sautéing and frying? Think ones that hold up to high temps. Maybe you’re looking for maximum flavor without the yucky aftertaste. Here’s a roundup of common cooking oils with everything you need to know for whipping up all your favorite dishes. From how they’re made and what they’re good for to their subtle differences, we hope this cheat sheet helps you make the right choices for whatever you want to cook up.

Storage Tip: To prevent cooking oils from turning rancid, be sure to store them in a cool, dark place—cupboards are ideal homes.

A Tale of Two Olive Oils

oil_oliveUsing a press or commercial steel tech, olive oil is made by crushing olives to form a paste before extracting the excess liquid. Light olive oil is treated with solvents to neutralize the naturally strong flavor of olives, making its flavor (and color) lighter. Able to withstanding temps up to 375°F, it is a good go-to for sautéing, frying, and roasting. Light olive oil is a perfect choice for your everyday cooking needs.

Extra virgin olive oil is untreated, which means it retains most of its strong flavor. Depending on the exact origins of the olives used, the flavor can range from buttery or grassy to peppery and fruity. With its lower smoke point—approximately 325°F—it burns easily, which means you’re better off not cooking with it if you plan on turning up the heat. Try using extra virgin olive oil for homemade vinaigrettes or drizzle atop a slice of avocado toast for a delicious flavor boost.

Switzerland of Oils: The Neutrals

Vegetable oil is made from a mixture of various refined oils. Its neutral flavor and relatively high smoking point (about 400°F) means it’s suitable for sautéing and frying over high heat when you don’t want any added flavor in your food. You can use it to achieve crispy skin on your fish without overpowering it, to make picture-perfect fried eggs, or to fry a batch of doughnuts.

Similar to vegetable oil, canola oil is a neutral variety that stands up well to high temps. Made from rapeseed plants that are pressed and extracted, it can be used interchangeably with vegetable oil. Sear and fry away! Additionally, canola oil is a good neutral choice for all your salad needs.

Pressed from the germ of corn—or small germinating part of the seed—corn oil is a neutral variety with a high smoking point. Like vegetable and canola oils, it’s well suited to frying and sautéing when used in its refined state. Unrefined corn oil has slightly more detectible notes of corn and a nutty taste better suited to dishes that would benefit from the flavor.

oil_grapeseedGrapeseed oil (above) boasts incredible versatility, making it quite the culinary darling. Processed from grape seeds—the natural by-products of winemaking—this oil has a faint light green hue and clean taste. Additionally, it can be heated up to 420°F! Its high smoking point and neutral flavor means it’s good for cooking a wide range of foods but also great for vinaigrettes. When you want to let the other components of a dish shine, grapeseed oil is a natural pick.

Pressed from sunflower seeds, sunflower oil is your pantry must-have if you frequently find yourself searing and sautéing. With a smoking point of about 440°F and neutral flavor, you’ll find it perfect for cooking salmon steaks, chicken breasts, and even sea scallops.

Versatile and neutral like the other oils in this section, saffron oil is pressed from the seeds of thistly safflowers. Monounsaturated saffron oil is a go-to for most cooking needs. The polyunsaturated type is best used in sauces and dressings since it has a much lower smoking point.

The Nutty (and Seedy) Ones

Oils extracted from nuts and seeds are aces for use in a variety of dishes. However, keep in mind that toasted or roasted versions of these oils are more concentrated in flavor and delicate when it comes to heat threshold. Instead of cooking with them, the toasty varieties are best used as delicious finishing touches.

Pressed and extracted from almonds, almond oil has amazing depth and richness, making it a great choice for drizzling over soups and salads! It also lends irresistibly nutty, toasty flavor to baked goods such as muffins, cookies, cakes, and rolls. Mmm, the baking possibilities….

Cold-pressed from peanuts, peanut oil’s nutty aroma and distinct flavor notes means its best suited to dishes with complementary flavors, going well with various ingredients used in Asian cuisines. Its high smoking point of 450°F and ability to allow foods to retain their natural flavors make peanut oil great for deep-frying as well stir-frying.

oil_sesameWith its relatively mild flavor and high smoking point (about 410°F), cold-pressed sesame oil (above) is a good choice for general use: sautés, roasts, stir-fries. We love the way it instantly adds subtle flavor to foods without overwhelming them.

The Cool Kids

Avocado oil? Yes! Flavorful and brimming with all the famous “good fats”—aka monounsaturated fats—this oil is pressed and extracted from its namesake fruit. Unrefined, it boasts a smoking point of 480°F, while refined varieties can withstand temps upwards of 520°F. As a result, it’s best for a variety of uses: sautéing, roasting, and searing. Avocado oil also adds just enough flavor to vinaigrettes. Hello, well-dressed salads.

oil_coconutHot topic alert! Once vilified for its high content of saturated fats, coconut oil is now lauded for those very same fats, some of which are thought to kill harmful pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. Extracted from tender coconut meat, it naturally solidifies at room temperature, making it ideal as a butter substitute for vegan baking—vinaigrettes, not so much. With a smoking point of 350°F, coconut oil is also a fragrant choice for cooking foods over moderate heat. Try using it for your next soup or batch of pancakes.

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