If you’re anything like me, you don’t know too much about what different cooking oils are made of and when to use them. Honestly, I know the back of the brownie box calls for vegetable oil, and chili oil is obviously going to be spicier than olive oil, but that’s about it. And yet, cooking oils are actually one of the most versatile—and interesting—ingredients you could keep in your pantry.
Whether you’re using them for frying, flavoring, or dressing, there is an oil for every occasion. We are going to go through a few of the most commonly-used cooking (and flavoring) oils and learn all about what’s in them and when you should take advantage of them in your cooking, because the right oil can make a big difference!
Olive Oil & Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Made from: Olives (it is not always this obvious!)
Once the oil is extracted from the olives, it will often go through a refining process, where solvents and high heat are added in order to maintain the good taste and prevent the oxidation of olives that can lead to a not-so-delicious oil.
There is a very small difference between olive oil and virgin and extra virgin olive oil (or “EVOO,” per Rachael Ray). The production of virgin olive oil and EVOO is more careful and meticulous than that of standard olive oil and, as a result, there is nothing added to EVOO in order to refine it; only mechanical methods are used. Since it’s unrefined and does not contain the same additives, you taste more of the subtle fruitier flavors the olive offers. Plus, it maintains more of its natural nutrients and lasts longer in your pantry than standard olive oil. (Read more about virgin olive oil vs extra-virgin olive oil for the finer points.)
Best for: The finishing touches (pricey EVOO) & almost everything else (affordable EVOO, virgin olive oil, and regular olive oil)
You should never feel guilty about using olive oil. It contains naturally healthy fats, keeps cholesterol down, fights inflammation, and may even help manage diabetes and weight issues. You’ll want to save your super-expensive, super-flavorful, artisanal extra-virgin olive oil for the finishing touches—meaning, it’s totally okay for you to drizzle some olive oil on your finished product for a little extra flavor (and a little health boost). You can put it on top of salads or pasta, use it as the base for a marinade, or dip your bread in olive oil and spices as a healthier substitute for butter. You can also use it around the house and for a number of maladies. EVOO is great for upset stomachs and has natural antibacterial properties. When you start babies on solid foods, you can add in a drop of EVOO to ease their digestion process. Additionally, it works great on dry skin (especially in the scalp area) and can even be given to pets in their food or on their coats.
Mid-tier EVOO and even-more-affordable plain olive oil is flexible in that you can use it for pretty much anything else—pan-frying, sautéing, dressing, and even baking. It’s not usually great for deep-frying since many olive oils have a fairly low smoke point, but that’s about its only downside. It’s a healthy substitute for most cooking fats (butter, margarine, and the like) and a must-stock pantry item.
Made from: That depends
I was actually shocked to learn that vegetable oil is, for the most part, not made with vegetables at all, and is just an umbrella term for any and all oils made from nuts (like peanut oil), fruits (like coconut oil), and seeds (like corn oil—yep, made from corn seeds, not kernels, and used for industrial purposes like softening leather, though you can fry with it too). Count in safflower oil, sunflower oil, and grapeseed oil as well. But we’re talking about those bottles labeled “Pure Vegetable Oil” in the store. These are usually made from soybeans (or a blend of several different vegetable oils) and go through an in-depth and multi-stage refinement process that includes bleaching, filtering, heating, and deodorizing before they are ready to be eaten. The purpose of the refining process is to ensure that there are no unwanted impurities, fatty acids, or coloring in the oil.
Best for: Flavoring and deep frying
When they say anything that tastes good is bad for you, they weren’t kidding. Deep fried foods are as delicious as they are because they are most often fried in vegetable oil, which has a high smoke point and little flavor of its own, making it ideal for this high-heat cooking method; that intense heat interacts with the neutral oil to help foods brown (i.e. taste better) and diffuse all their fat-soluble flavor molecules into the oil and throughout the whole dish. Because there are so many additives and extra steps to making vegetable oil, it doesn’t have any of the health benefits olive oils do, but it does make for delicious fried chicken and flash-seared stir-fries, and everything delicious is good in moderation. Neutral vegetable oil can also be used in baking when you need an animal-free fat without any of its own flavor to interfere.
Made from: Seeds from the rapeseed plant
I’m not ashamed to admit that I just learned this today, but canola oil in particular is made by extracting oil in the tiny seeds of the rapeseed plant. Because it technically falls under the domain of a vegetable oil, it does go through a refinement process, but canola oil is actually the healthiest vegetable oil you can use in your cooking. It contains a low percentage of “bad” fats but a high percentage of good fats, and boasts many of the same health benefits that olive oil does.
Best for: Anything, including dressings, frying, and baking
We’ve talked about olive oil being great as a dressing, marinade, or dipping sauce, and vegetable oil being perfect for frying and baking. Well, canola oil is a good choice for all of these things. You can also use it to grease up your pots and pans before sauteing. Such a versatile product is worth keeping in your pantry at all times.
Made from: Copra
Copra is the dried meat of the coconut. The meat of the coconut is usually smoked, sun-dried, or kiln-dried in order to extract oil. Once extracted, the oil has to go through a refinement process, as the drying techniques are not always perfectly sanitary. Sodium hydroxide (also known to us laypeople as “lye”) is usually added to the oil both to remove the bad fatty acids and prolong the shelf life of the product.
Read More: How Coconut Oil Is Made
Best for: Baking, stir-frying, and using around the house
A common vegan cooking fat, coconut oil can be used for baking, stir-frying, sauteing, and more, and is pretty good for you; ingesting coconut oil is linked to heart health and management of symptoms of Chron’s Disease and IBS. Plus, the subtle additional flavor it adds to your food is a great bonus. But the uses for coconut oil are not limited to the kitchen by any means. Coconut oil is beneficial as a hair product, helpful for flare-ups of psoriasis, and I use coconut oil both as a tanning aide and when I get sunburn. So, like olive oil, coconut oil belongs in your pantry and in your medicine cabinet.
Made from: Peanuts…technically
Here I was thinking people just crushed up actual peanuts to make peanut oil, but peanut oil actually comes from the seeds of the peanut plant. Fun fact: Peanut oil is also known as arachis oil. You’ll thank me the next time you find yourself on “Jeopardy!” Additionally, there are several types of peanut oil with varying degrees of refinement, so not all peanut oils taste the same. Some are mild, some are almost tasteless, some are sweet, and some are very nutty. Ultra-refined peanut oil is what you’ll most often see at the store, and is the most versatile.
Best for: Deep-frying and stir-frying
This oil’s subtle peanut taste goes great with Asian flavors, and its high smoke point makes it a great base for stir-fries of all kinds. As for deep-frying, the high smoke point is definitely a factor, but peanut oil is also low in saturated fat, so if you’re looking to not feel super guilty about eating deep-fried food, you can use peanut oil. Fast food chains like Five Guys and Chick-Fil-A thrive on peanut oil both because it makes for great flavor and its health benefits prevent the food from absolutely dripping in unwanted grease.
Made from: Avocado pulp
To make avocado oil, the pits and skin are removed from ripe avocados. The leftover fruit (called “the pulp”) is pressed to force out both oil and water. Fun fact: pure, unrefined avocado oil will be thick and green.
Best for: Pretty much everything
Like coconut oil, avocado oil is a jack of all trades, good for eating and treating. It works great as a butter substitute when you’re looking to add a healthier element to your favorite dish, it’s a great base for a salad dressing, and it’s actually great for your hair, skin, and cuticles. My nail salon uses an avocado oil when they massage your hands after a manicure, and my hands always feel soft (and smell great) for a long time afterwards. So massage it into your next pan of roasted veggies with your bare hands and get extra benefits.
Made from: Grape seeds
We actually wouldn’t have grapeseed oil if it weren’t for wine, since grapeseed oil is a byproduct of winemaking. Years ago, people were taking the seeds out of grapes to make wine from the flesh and skins, then simply throwing away the seeds. Eventually, someone realized that each grape seed contains a little bit of oil and capitalized on it, and the process of making grapeseed oil was born! Grape seeds are pressed to make a light, slightly flavorful oil.
Best for: Pretty much everything
Grapeseed oil is very high in vitamin E and omega-6, which makes it good for your heart and immune system. It also has a high smoke point, making it one of the healthier oils to use if you’re planning to deep-fry something. Like most of the oils on this list, it also works in dressings, and the subtle grape flavor should be great in the upcoming summer months, but it’s neutral enough to work anywhere, from aioli to baked goods.
Made from: Sesame seeds
I’m most excited for the next two oils on the list because, while they are similar to the others in that they are derived from seeds, they are far more flavorful than canola or peanut oil. First up, sesame oil. Sesame seeds have a strong nutty taste, so anything derived from them is going to be jam-packed with flavor.
Best for: Indian, Middle Eastern, African, and Southeast Asian cooking
The nuttiness in sesame oil lends itself well to the strong smoky flavors so often found in Middle Eastern cooking, and is great with many Asian ingredients too. Sesame oil creates a nice balance of flavors, and its low saturated fat content makes it good for heart health, blood pressure, and cholesterol, so no guilt necessary! If you’re cooking with it, be careful not to overheat it because it burns easily and takes on a bitter flavor.
Made from: Up to you, as long as it’s spicy
Standard chili oil is typically just vegetable oil infused with chili peppers, but I know a lot of restaurants and recipes that take creative control. You could add Sriracha and chili flakes to almost any oil to give it that extra kick. Just know that this is a truly spicy oil, and shouldn’t be the go-to if you’re looking to drown or dress your dish in oil, and is typically used to finish dishes, but can be cooked with too.
Best for: The sky’s the limit
Because of the sweet and spicy mixture of most chili oils, it lends itself best to Chinese and other Asian cuisines that walk the line between sweet and heat. But, have you ever watched “Beat Bobby Flay?” Bobby Flay uses chili oil in anything. Literally anything. The signature dish could be peanut butter and jelly, and Bobby Flay finds a way. So I’m telling you, there’s nothing wrong with spicing up your food, and you can use this for whatever your heart desires! Maybe not a skin treatment, though.
Related Video: Turn Leftover Sriracha Into Chili Oil
Header image courtesy of Tetra Images/Getty Images