Each variety of oil has its own flavours and properties and can add to a dish in its own special way. Sounds great, right? Perhaps not. If you lack a little confidence in the kitchen or are new to this cooking caper, the world of oil can seem like a confusing slippery slope.
This simple list will help you find your feet, but first a little oil 101. Oil is a fat, like butter, but fat is good: it protects your ingredients from heat, traps moisture and is the difference between a nice vegetable stir-fry and a smoking clump in the wok.
Despite what you read on many other health blogs, we recommend you don’t bother spending too much time parsing the health benefits of different oils. The amount of micronutrients like vitamins and antioxidants (which, when eaten, have no proven health benefits anyway) you’re getting from most dishes will be marginal at best.
Cooking oils have different amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (the good fats) and saturated fats (the bad ones). Unfortunately, the oils that can stand up to high temperatures (a high “smoke point”) usually contain the most saturated fats, which is part of why deep-fried foods are so unhealthy, and why Burger King doesn’t cook its fries in olive oil.
But if you aren’t in the mood for deep fried chicken wings and just want to make a nice veggie saute or chicken tikka masala, the nutritional profile of the oil doesn’t really matter at that quantity, so just use the one that tastes the best.
Now let’s slide into our list!
When in doubt, just use good old vegetable oil. It gets a bad rap these days, but it isn’t that bad. Vegetable oil is usually a highly processed blend of several oils from plants like palm, corn, sesame, sunflower, soybean and canola. It has an extremely high smoke point and is flavourless, which means you taste the food, not the oil it was cooked in. Think of this as the all-purpose flour of oils.
If vegetable oil is the king of the oil aisle, olive oil is the queen: one of the healthiest oils you can use, with the good sort of fat, a distinct, pleasant flavour, and a number of apparent health benefits. It goes well with low-temperature cooking, salad dressings and as a condiment, but its low smoke point means it won’t stand up to deep-frying and other high-temperature affairs. Also bear in mind that its strong flavour doesn’t go well with everything (and some people don’t like it at all).
Made from the flowering canola plant, canola oil has a light flavour and high smoke point, which is why it is a staple of vegetable oil blends. But it also has one of the lowest amounts of saturated fat – even lower than olive oil – making it possibly the healthiest pick for deep frying and other high-heat cooking methods.
Thick, creamy and solid at room temperature, coconut oil is great for high-temperature cooking, has a pleasant but not overpowering flavour, lasts six months or more without spoiling, and is hardy enough to serve as a butter alternative in cookies and cakes. What is coconut oil’s secret? It’s basically all saturated fat – contrary to its current status as a fad health food. (Fun fact: Due to its high freezing point, coconut oil is the secret to homemade chocolate shell ice cream sauce.)
With a super high smoke point, peanut oil is perfect for deep frying and imparts a rich, peanutty taste to dishes. It’s worth experimenting with peanut oil in fried prawns and chicken satay, but maybe not, say, scrambled eggs or seared trout. It also has a very short shelf life, so buy in small quantities.
Flaxseed oil is has a very low smoke point, making it best for dressings and some low-temperature pastries, like these vegan pancakes.
Another nutty oil with a high smoke point, uncooked sesame oil smells stronger than it tastes, but once it hits the frying pan, its nutty sesame taste is released in a big way – so use it if that’s wanted for stir-fries and other high-heat dishes.
Avocado oil is basically the olive oil you can fry with. It’s light and creamy with a mild flavour, making it great for dressing or as a standalone condiment, but it also has a relatively high smoke point and holds up well in high-heat cooking.
Baby oil does not, in fact, come from babies. It should also not be used in food.