How to Choose the Right Cooking Oil

Bringing out the best of your finished dish


First thing’s first: There is no “right” cooking oil. All cooking oils have a purpose and figuring how to match the oil with the preparation and serving method is key to delicious, well-cooked food without breaking the bank.

Consider your finished product. What do you imagine on the plate? A pile of fish & chips? Your CSA basket deconstructed into stir fry? A juicy pork tenderloin straight off the grill? Perhaps something roasted low and slow for a dramatic centerpiece.

Photo courtesy: Cooking Oils

If your cooking temperature is hot and fast, choose an oil with a high smoke point. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which the compounds in the fat begin to deteriorate, turn acrid and possibly carcinogenic. Nothing delicious there. Err on the side of high smoke points for grill, sauté, stir fry and deep fry.

Oils with a high smoke point include canola, soy bean (most often labeled “vegetable oil”), peanut oil, clarified butter (known as ghee in Indian cookery) and the darling of chefs and restaurant kitchens, grapeseed oil.

Consider that when cooking, the oil should not be a flavor component of the final dish. When cooking at high temperatures, grapeseed oil is perfect because it is completely neutral. It is, however, pricy. The next best option is canola, as the flavor addition is minimal and only to the most precise palate. Peanut and soybean are good choices, too; just make sure no one you are serving has an allergy to either.

If your final dish is a slowly braised head of garlic or roasted root vegetables, consider using olive or coconut oil, if you want to incorporate some fine flavor into your dish. Olive oil also makes a delicious baste for a wet rub to smear on a cut of meat before a slow trip though a roasting oven or a smoker. Coconut oil imparts a sweetness and unrefined coconut oil is downright tropical.

Good olive oil however, is expensive. (I’ve been known to smuggle Mason jars through customs, though I don’t recommend that behavior.) While it will work from a technical perspective, why waste your highly prized, small batch, first pressed extra virgin harvested by nuns in Sicily because a smoke point reference website says you can?

Instead, save your finest oils to serve at room temperature, as a garnish. Stir fry your carrots, celery and shrimp in canola or grapeseed oil, and serve with sesame oil drizzled on top. Your Sicilian nuns? Keep that Mason jar for fresh mozzarella, or dressing a finished pasta dish. Salads are extra delicious decorated with delicate nut oils like walnut or hazelnut.

As I said up top, there’s no “right” way to do anything but just because you can ignore your “Check Engine” light, doesn’t mean you should. Consider your preparation and service method and choose oils that bring out the best in your finished dish.

Tell us: Do you use specialty finishing oils? What oils do you like to use and for what occasions? Share them with us below!

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Leah Mansback
    Hand of Snooth
    555565 1,298

    These are great tips. I never know what oils to cook with and thus just stick with olive oil. I have never tried grapeseed oil or clarified butter, but most vegan and vegetarian recipes call for clarified butter, do you know where I can find it?

    Aug 10, 2011 at 12:34 PM

  • You can buy ghee in any Indian specialty store. It is generally considered to be interchangeable with clarified butter. Just be sure to get the plain variety as some are made with typical Indian spices. However, it is cheaper to just make your own. Melt the butter over very low heat until it stops foaming, then scoop off all the foam and solids; strain the remainder through a cheesecloth covered strainer to catch anything you missed. It will be reduced from what you started with (apparently by around a quarter) since you've cooked off all the water and separated out the milk solids, leaving only the pure fat content of the butter. Properly stored and refrigerated, it'll keep for months (up to 6 I've been told, but I've never kept it that long)

    Aug 10, 2011 at 4:11 PM

  • Snooth User: Markask
    413434 4

    A strict vegetarian or vegan cook would not use clarified butter. You can make your own clarified butter by melting the butter and seperating the solids and the fat.

    Aug 10, 2011 at 7:07 PM

  • Snooth User: Borgs
    574193 3

    Rice Oil is not mentioned here but is high smoke point and leaves no residual taste

    Aug 11, 2011 at 1:22 AM

  • Snooth User: Liam45
    499876 11

    Yes, Rice Bran Oil has very high smoke point and is ideal for stir frying.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 5:13 AM

  • Snooth User: pigdeer
    256858 3

    Don't forget to include avocado oil--very high smoke point.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 7:15 AM

  • Snooth User: Gilfaethwy
    809804 34

    Grapeseed oil -- usually available at WalMart in their Kosher Foods or International section for not-too-much money -- not only has a high smoke point and monounsaturated fatty acids, it is also chockful of antioxidants. It also makes for delicious sauteed or fried meats. Canola oil was originally and is still correctly called Rapeseed Oil (rapeseed is a mustard relative; and the name "Canola" was coined by rapeseed growers in Canada since "rapeseed" sounds, well, not very appetizing). It is the most economical of all the high-monounsaturated oils, and an excellent all-purpose oil. I find one can maximize one's ghee/clarified butter by the addition of some canola. Clarified butter -- traditionally, both in French and Indian cookery, ever-so-slightly browned for more flavor -- is indeed Richmolinari has said -- it can be kept airtight but unrefrigerated. If one is worried about possible spoilage, cut open a gelcap or two of Vitamin E as an antioxidant preservative. (This works with whole butter too, as well as peanut butter.)
    I find in Italian cooking one almost always wants the most strongly olive-flavored oil: those "light" flavored olive oils are a waste of money, since Canola can usually work just as well where one does NOT want the olive flavor. Sugo di pomidoro, the long-cooked, rich, caramelized, deep red tomato sauce of southern Italy, cries out for a strong-flavored oil. They are generally dark green in color: beware of cheaper ones which can be quite bitter. They really should allow tasting of oils before buying, as with cheeses or wines, since olive oils are every bit as complex, flavorwise.

    I find peanut oil still the best general oil for Oriental cooking; Sesame oil is more a flavoring agent than a cooking medium. For Thai and Indonesian cookery, coconut oil is excellent, though its discernible flavor is a limiting factor in other cuisines. (It would be good for deep-fried dessert items like doughnuts or fritters.)

    Though strict vegans and vegitarians would not use ghee, it is fine for ovolacto-vegetarians (milk and unfertilized eggs not entailing the sacrifice of any animals). Canola is a good replacement for those who absolutely will not touch any animal-derived product.

    In general I avoid soybean oil and corn oil as they not only have distinct flavors but also have metabolic downsides (too involved to go into here). And I don't like how refined such oils as safflower and sunflower are (and there have been recent studies showing downsides to polyunsaturated oils, as well).

    So: I keep strong-flavored Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Canola Oil, Peanut Oil, Grapeseed Oil, Ghee and Sesame Oil on hand as staples, using Avocado, Walnut, Coconut and some other speciality items occasionally.

    Will have to try Rice Oil-- I guess, available at Oriental food markets?

    Buon Appetito!

    Aug 11, 2011 at 1:45 PM

  • Snooth User: sglzip
    643660 0

    Wow, thanks for all the valuable information on oils Gil. Any additional information on creating your own flavored oils (garlic, chili pepper, etc). What type of plain oils are best to infuse the ingredients? How long can you keep oils around before they start going rancid? Thanks!

    Sep 08, 2011 at 12:12 PM

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