Cooking Oil Comparison Guide

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Even an occasional cook needs to have some type of cooking oil in the pantry. These plant-based oils are used for everything from frying to baking to making salad dressings. There’s no need to stick with only one type of oil, however. Each of the most popular cooking oils has slightly different qualities that make it superior for different kitchen needs.

Each type of cooking oil has its own flavor, level of fats, and smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil will begin to smoke, indicating it is overheated and may lose health benefits.

Olive oil: One of the healthiest oils, olive oil is very high in monounsaturated fat, but is low in Omega-3. It has a distinctive, strong flavor and comes in several varieties. Extra-virgin, which is the highest quality type, is pressed from whole olives within a day of harvesting, and has a low smoke point that makes it unsuitable for frying or sautéing at high heat. Light olive oil has been refined to reduce the strong olive flavor, and has a higher smoke point.

Olive oil has many uses, depending on variety. Extra-virgin is excellent for salad dressings and pasta sauce. Virgin or light olive oil can be used for sautéing, stir-frying and oven cooking, especially in Italian or Mediterranean dishes.

Canola oil: Made from hybridized rapeseed, canola oil is high in monounsaturated fat, and contains a high level of Omega-3 fatty acids. It has a very mild taste that works with any sort of recipe, and has a fairly high smoke point. There is some concern that at very high temperatures, canola oil may produce a toxin that is harmful to the respiratory system.

Used at moderate temperatures, canola oil is excellent for baking, sautéing, stir-frying and as a base for dressings. Its mild taste makes it a good match for any dish that has stronger spices or flavors.

Peanut oil: With its nutty flavor and high smoke point, peanut oil is excellent for deep-frying and stir-frying. It is lower in healthy fats than olive oil or canola, but does have a good level of Omega-6. Though refined peanut oil has the peanut allergen removed, it is still safest to avoid using this oil if you are cooking for anyone who might be allergic to peanuts.

Peanut oil is popular in Asian stir-fry recipes, and is also a good choice for frying potatoes or even a whole turkey.

Sesame oil: Though it has a moderately high smoke point, sesame oil is best used with low or medium heat. It contains a high level of healthy polyunsaturated fats. Sesame oil is processed into dark oil, which has a strong flavor, and light oil, which is milder, but still flavorful.

Dark sesame oil is a staple in Asian cooking, particularly good when stir-frying. Light sesame oil is delicious in salad dressings and for sautéing.

Sunflower oil: Low in saturated fat and high in Vitamin E, sunflower oil has a mild flavor. Choose a high heat version, and you can use it for frying and baking. It’s good for making french fries or other potato dishes, and also for sautéing or as a base for salad dressing.

Corn oil: Not as high in healthy fats as many other oils, corn oil is highly refined and has a high smoke point. It is good for frying and baking, and does not add flavor of its own to food as it cooks. Other cooking oils are a better choice if health benefits are your main concern.

Vegetable oil: A blend of oils from vegetables or soybeans, the nutritional value of vegetable oil is lower than most other cooking oils. It does have a high smoke point, making it useful for deep-frying, and its mild flavor will not alter the taste of cooking food. It is less expensive than most other cooking oils, making it popular in commercial cooking.

Oils are liquid fat, and many people are concerned about fat in their diet. Cooking oils are generally healthy fats, however; not the unhealthy saturated fat that is mostly found in animal products; or trans-fat, which is usually made by processing unsaturated fat into a solid form with a longer shelf life. You can usually tell the more unhealthy forms of fat because they are solid at room temperature.  Plant oils, which are unsaturated fats, tend to remain liquid at room temperature.

Storing Cooking Oils

Cooking oils should be kept in a closed cupboard, and away from excessive heat or moisture. Oils will go stale or rancid if kept for too long once opened. Generally, you can expect olive oil to last for around a year, other oils for 6 to 8 months. Purchase the smallest size bottles of specialty oils, and mid-size bottles of those you use frequently, such as olive oil.

If you cook with any regularity, your pantry should contain at least a bottle of canola and a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Add a small bottle of peanut or sesame oil if you love to stir-fry. Moderate amounts of healthy cooking oil add beneficial fats to your diet, helping to keep your cholesterol balanced and your circulatory system healthy.  

Last Updated: October 3, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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