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Cooking Oils 101

From avocado to walnut, our ultimate guide to cooking oils and which to use when.


Back in the day, your cooking oil choices were limited; there was olive oil and canola oil, and that was it. Today, a walk down the grocery store aisles reveals a dizzying selection of oils from seemingly every nut and seed on the planet, each promising to be better for you than the last. Meanwhile, scientists keep revising their recommendations on trans fats and hydrogenated oils - They're terrible! They're necessary! - leaving our heads spinning. And then there's the simple question of what's going to work best for you in the kitchen!
The good news is that that overwhelming variety means there are lots of healthy, delicious options out there. Most whole oils are fine for you in moderation, and while some do have greater health benefits than others, none are so damaging that they should be blacklisted for good. In general, always look for ingredients that have been manipulated as little as possible - words like "cold-pressed" or "expeller pressed" mean the oil was extracted with good old-fashioned physical force rather than using chemicals, leaving its nutrients intact. ("Virgin" is another keyword that signifies that an oil hasn't been chemically processed.)
In the kitchen, the other thing to look for when making your decision is an oil's smoke point. Every oil has a different tolerance for heat - when it gets too hot, it will start to break down and burn, losing its nutritional value and potentially creating harmful free radicals as a byproduct. Things like minerals and aromatic compounds that make an oil especially flavorful also lower its smoke point; the more "neutral" an oil tastes, the higher its smoke point probably is. So some oils are best for sauteeing, others for deep frying, and some are so delicate they should be saved for finishing a dish after it's off the heat altogether. 
In the market for a new oil? Here's a breakdown of the choices you're likely to see:



Avocado: While it's not a budget-friendly option, avocado oil has a high smoke point that makes it great for frying. It has a very mild avocado flavor and is high in vitamin E. 
Coconut: Because it's solid at room temperature, coconut oil is great for baking, either as a vegan substitute for butter or just to add a mild, sweet flavor to your treats. Always look for virgin coconut oil; processed coconut oil is high in trans fats and lacks beneficial fatty acids and antioxidants.
Extra virgin olive: The first pressing of the best olives, extra virgin olive oil has a terrific range of flavors, from green and grassy to golden and peppery. Because of this, it's best to save this oil for finishing dishes - drizzle it over anything from salad to ice cream (try it!) for a decadent flavor boost.
Grapeseed: With a relatively high smoke point and neutral flavor profile, grapeseed is a great all-purpose oil that can go from grill to saute pan.
Olive: For sauteeing and marinade, regular olive oil is the best choice. It has less olive flavor than extra virgin, but holds up better in heat.
Peanut: With a very high smoke point, peanut oil is great for deep frying - if allergies aren't an issue. Soybean oil is a similarly sturdy alternative.
Walnut: Extremely flavorful and delicate, walnut oil is great for dressing salads, but shouldn't be exposed to direct heat. Because it's full of volatile flavor compounds, it's also quick to turn rancid, so it should be stored in the fridge.

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