Cooking Oils 101 – Which is Best for What?

Fat and oils are an important part of a healthy diet providing sustaining dense energy at approximately 40 calories per teaspoon (9 calories per gram), as well providing and/or helping you use the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Having some fat in your daily diet provides satiety, good health, and is important for everyone; it also makes food taste good!

Fat from animals is solid at room temperature (like butter) and is considered a saturated fat. Oil from plants, is liquid at room temperature, and is an unsaturated fat (like olive oil). Both are important for good health, in moderation. When cooking, each type of fat imparts specific flavor traits as well as cooking traits, such as the temperature where it starts smoking. Oils with a higher smoke point are better for high-heat frying and stir frying whereas oils with a low smoke point are better to use in salad dressings and non-cooked items. With so many choices available in today’s market, sometimes it’s difficult to know which one to choose, so here is a bit of information about various cooking oils. Fat will be a topic another day.

Vegetable oil

Vegetable oil is a general term for corn, soy, canola and sunflower oils and blends of these oils. These oils are often blended together to create a product that is fairly cheap. Vegetable oils contain omega 6 fatty acids, which are essential for health, but can also be pro-inflammatory. I recommend using these oils in moderation. Vegetable oil can be used for most cooking and baking, as it is mildly flavored and typically has a smoke point around 400-450F, depending on the oils.

Canola oil

Canola oil is unique in that it is modified rape seed oil, thus making it healthier for human consumption. According to the Canola Board of Canada, it was originally modified through traditional hybrid techniques, but has since been genetically modified further, as have most vegetables oils that aren’t specifically labeled as GMO free, or organic. Canola oil is fairly cheap and can be a good way to get additional omega 3 fatty acids in your diet, especially if you don’t like fatty fish or fish oils. Canola oil is virtually flavorless and has a smoke point around 400F

Peanut oil

Peanut oil is often used to deep-fry foods and stir fry Asian dishes. According to Bon Appetit, peanut oil is made from pressing steamed-softened peanuts and is mildly flavored in the US, but may be stronger tasting in other countries. Peanut oil has a smoke point around 400F.

Sesame oil

Sesame oil is flavorful oil that is used in many Asian dishes. Lighter colored sesame oil is pressed from raw sesame seeds whereas darker versions are often pressed from toasted sesame seeds. Sesame oil pairs well with soy sauce, but it’s flavor can diminish quickly when heated to a high temperature, so it’s best to add it late in the recipe. It can also be added to salad dressings for a nice flavor change. Sesame oil has a smoke point around 420F.

Olive oil

Olive oil, rich in antioxidants, is known for its health benefits and is an important part of the Mediterranean Diet. Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is from the first cold-pressing of the olives. It traditionally has a deep green color and a slightly fruity flavor; it is also the most expensive of the olive oils. When the oil doesn’t meet the extra virgin standard, it is often refined to get rid of any impurities and results in a lighter more neutrally flavored oil. According to the North American Olive Oil Association (, extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point range from 350-410F, and up to 470F for the more refined, lighter-tasting olive oils.

Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil, although from a plant, is a saturated fat that is solid at room temperature. This “oil” is becoming very popular due to its flavor and renewed interest in its unique health properties. Coconut oil is a bit more fragile than other “oils” with a smoke point around 350F, making it better for recipes cooked at lower temperatures.

Hemp seed oil

Hemp seed oil is an oldie, coming around as new again in health food stores. This oil has a nutty flavor and doesn’t do well when heated to high temperatures, so it’s best used for soups and non-cooked items like salad dressings. Store hemp oil in the refrigerator to keep it fresh longer.

Now that you know a little more about some delicious and healthy oils, why not go out and try some new oils to see what works best in your favorite recipes?

Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RD

Jennifer M Wood, MS, RDN is registered dietitian nutritionist and successful food and nutrition consultant in Southeastern Minnesota. As the founder of a nation-wide gourmet food company, Wood wrote Jenny’s Country Kitchen…recipes for making homemade a little easier! (2003), which is a timeless collection of make-ahead, freeze-ahead and pantry-stocking recipes and time saving tips to help busy families put nutritious food on table. Wood graduated with a pre-med bachelors degree in nutritional science in 2001, completed her dietetic internship in 2007 and went on to complete a master’s degree in food and nutrition in 2011.

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