Home Chef How-To: Choose the Best Oil for the Job

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When it comes to cooking oils, you have a lot of options. In fact, the sheer variety of cooking oils available at the supermarket can be enough to send culinary novices running for the microwaveable meal section.

If this sounds familiar, then fear not. We’re going to delve into the major kinds of cooking oil, and when to use each one. If you’ve got five minutes, you can up your culinary prowess by about five notches right now. Let’s get started.

Oil Basics

Oil can be derived from plants, animals, or synthetic sources. Essentially, oil is just liquid (or a soft solid) fat that prevents food from burning and sticking to cooking surfaces, keeps food moist, and adds flavor.

Nutrition

Oil typically contains both saturated and unsaturated fats, of which unsaturated is generally agreed to be healthier and more effective in raising the ratio of “good” cholesterol to “bad” cholesterol. If you see a bottle marked “partially hydrogenated,” that means it contains synthetic trans fats, which are more harmful than naturally occurring saturated fats. Basically, a healthy oil will contain with some saturated fats, more unsaturated fats and no trans fats. Most oils contain significant levels of Vitamins E and K.

Storage

Store all oils away from high heat and intense light, somewhere cool and dry.

Disposal

Place oil in sealed container and throw in regular waste bin. Depending upon the recycling facilities in your area, you may be able to recycle your oil. Never pour oil down the drain, as it will congeal in the pipes and cause you plumbing woes.

There are many types of oil, but we’re going to focus on the three most commonly used and widely available: olive, canola, and vegetable.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Olive oil is a Mediterranean cooking staple. It is the only one of these three oils to contain significant levels of Iron and also the only one with zero trans fats.

  • Flavor: fragrant and a little fruity
  • Pros: mega flavor and lots of nutrients
  • Cons: cannot be cooked at high heat; strong flavor clashes with some dishes
  • Best in: oven cooking, salad dressings, sauces
  • Conclusion: Olive oil is delicious and healthy, but not ultra flexible and, for better or worse, will definitely stand out in any dish.

Canola Oil

Canola oil was developed in Canada as a low-acid form of rapeseed oil. It is much lower in saturated fats than the other two oils on our list, but gets a bad rap from its common association with deep frying.

  • Flavor: mild and fairly neutral
  • Pros: very versatile, suited to almost any cooking use, more affordable than olive oil
  • Cons: often found in unhealthy deep fried and battered foods
  • Best in: everything and anything, as long as it’s not super high heat
  • Conclusion: If you’re only going to buy one household oil, canola is a smart choice because of its incredible range, as well as its unintrusive flavor and low level of saturated fats.

Vegetable Oil / Soybean Oil

Vegetable oil is actually made of soybeans (thus, it’s also known as “soybean oil”). This is your heavy duty oil, with a very high smoke point of 495 degrees F. This is the most affordable and, sadly, the least healthy oil on our list.

  • Flavor: adopts the flavor of the foods that it’s added to
  • Pros: affordable, versatile, with high smoke point
  • Cons: high level of saturated fats
  • Best in: high heat sauteing, intense deep frying
  • Conclusion: In a pinch, vegetable oil works well as a cheap, all-purpose answer to your cooking needs, but it’s not as nourishing as many of your alternative oils.

Summary

Different oils have different smoke points, meaning they can be cooked at different levels of heat, making them appropriate for different methods of cooking. They also have different flavor profiles, nutritional properties, and price points.

Look for oils that are high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. Avoid oils that are high in trans fats and any bottles with the word “hydrogenated” on the label. For a no-fuss option, stick with canola. To get flavorful and fancy, try olive oil.

Whether your goal is convenience or finesse, now you know what to look for. So, go cook. Be smart, be experimental, and become the well-oiled machine you were always meant to be. And we’ll hit you back with another post covering more exotic oils (like coconut and grape seed) and finishing oils (like walnut, pumpkin seed, and truffle (which we love at HC)) to spice up your routine.