The Best (and Worst) Oils for Cooking
Not all cooking oils are created equal, and you may be surprised at which ones can take the heat — and which should stay out of the oven. Learn more, including which are the healthiest oils to include in your diet.
Jamie Vespa is a registered dietitian, nutrition and food journalist, and digital influencer who operates the health-centric food blog and social media accounts, Dishing Out Health. She champions the idea that food and the power of cooking can heal, inspire, and help us thrive. Featured oil photos by Brittany Conerly.
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What would cooking be without oil? It helps create the perfect sear on a salmon fillet, adds luscious mouthfeel and cling to salad dressing, and creates a tender crumb in baked goods like olive oil cake. Basically, it makes food tastier and more enjoyable.
From workhorse, everyday oils to specialty finishing oils, we’ve never had so many options to choose from. And while some are interchangeable (like canola and vegetable oil), many impart their own distinct characteristics and usefulness in cooking.
Some oils perform well at high temperatures, helping you achieve an irresistible crispiness on roasted potatoes, or steakhouse-quality crust on steak. Others break down when heated, and are better off being whisked into a dressing or drizzled over already cooked veggies. Some are considered especially healthy cooking oils. Knowing the difference can be one of the easiest ways to elevate your meals, as we’re going to explore in this guide to the best cooking oils.
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But first, let’s address smoke point
Flavor, fat profile (for example, monounsaturated versus saturated), and processing techniques are all characteristics of cooking oils that differentiate one from the next. However the most important variable to consider is the oil’s smoke point.
All cooking fats (oil, butter, and lard) have a smoke point, which is the temperature at which the fat literally starts to smoke. When you cook food to or past this point, it runs the risk of tasting rancid or burnt. This is also the point at which the good-for-you nutrients start to break down and health-harming free radicals form. So before you roast, fry, or grill, read ahead to find out which oils are stable enough to handle the heat.
How to shop for cooking oils and store them at home
Prolonged exposure to light, heat, and air can cause oils to turn rancid. To ensure the best quality before you even leave the market, look for oils (olive oil, especially) packaged in tinted bottles or cans. The darker containers will help safeguard the oil from the harsh fluorescent lighting of the supermarket. And if your only options are clear plastic bottles, choose one towards the back of the shelf with the latest “best by” date.
Once you bring your oil home, store it in a cool, dark place. (Not in the cabinet directly above your stovetop, or on the counter next to it.) By keeping the bottle away from heat and light, you’ll prolong its shelf life and preserve its flavor. It’s also important to keep the cap on, which prevents air from sneaking in and oxidizing the oil.
The best oils for cooking
Some of the best oils for cooking include, left to right, LouAna refined peanut oil, La Tourangelle grapeseed oil, Wesson vegetable oil, Primal Kitchen avocado oil, extra-virgin olive oil (California Olive Ranch, Fat Gold, Frescobaldi Laudemio, Séka Hills), Bertolli extra light olive oil, and Spectrum canola oil.
These oils rank high in terms of versatility and heat tolerance. Whether you’re roasting, deep-frying, or sautéing, there’s one (or more) for the job.
Rich in monounsaturated fat, olive oil is liquid gold in the heart-health category. (The American Heart Association recommends that for good health, we consume primarily monounsataurated fats and polyunsaturated fats.) You’ll notice many different varieties of olive oils on store shelves, and they’re best broken into two categories: extra-virgin (unrefined) and pure (refined). While they’re all made the same way (by crushing olives into a paste, then extracting excess water), pure olive oil goes through additional processing to create a more heat-stable product.
Extra-virgin olive oil (unrefined, or “EVOO”) is not treated with chemicals or altered by temperature. Because it’s left close to its natural state, it retains a distinct olive flavor and more beneficial antioxidants called phenols. These disease-fighting compounds are part of what makes EVOO the go-to healthy fat of the Mediterranean diet.
The flavor of extra-virgin olive oil ranges from mild and buttery to robust with fruity to grassy notes and a peppery finish. Its lower smoke point (350°-380°, though some studies show it can be as high as 425°) makes it suitable for moderate heat cooking like everyday sautés and some roasting. Since it’s pricier than pure olive oil and can lose its nuances with prolonged heat exposure, some people like to save it as more of a finishing oil. Toss it with salad greens, dip fresh bread into it, or drizzle a little over homemade hummus.
EVOO is an essential ingredient in classic pesto for a reason. It amplifies the peppery notes of basil, softens the sharpness of Parmesan, and overall creates a smooth, spreadable sauce. Beyond tossing it in pasta, enjoy this pesto over roasted vegetables or fish, or spread on a sandwich.
Pure olive oil (also called “light,” “refined,” or “regular” olive oil) is treated with chemical solvents to neutralize the flavor and maximize shelf life. It’s lighter in color than extra-virgin, and has a much higher smoke point (450°-470°). Though the oil has fewer antioxidants than extra-virgin, these other qualities make it a versatile candidate for high-heat cooking like roasting and sautéing.
Use pure olive oil to prepare a sheet pan of vegetables that require a high temperature and lengthy cook time. The oil’s mild flavor lets the caramelized sweetness of the veggies shine, creating the ultimate side dish.
Avocado oil is light green in color with buttery, fruity flavor. Similar to olive oil, it’s rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats; however. its high smoke point (~520°) makes it much more versatile. Use avocado oil for high-heat cooking like roasting vegetables or chicken, broiling or grilling salmon, or pan-frying an egg. Alternatively, embrace its mild, nutty flavor in homemade vinaigrettes or dipping sauces.
In this sweet and savory chicken recipe, thighs are tossed in avocado oil before being baked to juicy perfection. On the table in just 30 minutes, they're something you’re going to want in your regular meal rotation.
Pressed from the rapeseed plant, canola oil is light in color, mild in flavor, and offers endless versatility. Many consider canola to be king in terms of heat-based applications because of its high smoke point (460°-470°) and neutral taste. Use it to sauté, oven-fry, and even bake breads, cakes, and muffins. Canola is also one of the few plant oils rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, making it deserving of a place in your pantry.
Canola oil adds moisture and tenderness to these carrot cupcakes without masking the quintessential spice profile. Slathered in a tangy cream cheese frosting and sprinkled with pecans, they’re the ultimate kid- (and adult!) pleaser.
Vegetable oil is typically a blend of different refined oils, which makes its smoke point vary between 400° and 450°. This workhorse oil is pale yellow in color, neutral in flavor, inexpensive, and suitable for any and all high-heat applications: roasting, sautéing, frying, and even baking.
Over recent years, vegetable oil has been shunned for its high amount of omega-6 fatty acids, which have a reputation for increasing inflammation. Newer research encourages us to stop trying to eliminate omega-6’s, and instead, just add more omega-3’s to our diet. So while there are healthier everyday oils to choose from (avocado, olive, and canola), vegetable oil can still have a place in your kitchen.
Crispy panko-coated Bang Bang Chicken pan-fries in vegetable oil in this restaurant-worthy recipe. A sweet chili mayo sauce seals the deal.
Chefs and home cooks praise refined peanut oil for its high smoke point (450°-470°) and neutral flavor, which make it perfect for deep frying. It also tends to develop fewer off-flavors during frying compared to some other vegetable oils.
Unrefined peanut oil, on the other hand, has a lower smoke point (350°), more pronounced flavor, and should only be used in low to moderate heat applications. Try it in Asian cooking to add dimension and nutty aroma to stir-fries and salad dressings.
If you’ve never made this Asian takeout classic, you’re in for a treat! First coat the chicken in a deeply savory marinade made with peanut oil, and then pan-fry the pieces of meat in hot peanut oil for extra crispiness.
Grape seeds yield a light, mild-tasting oil that’s pale green in color with a high smoke point (420°). Between its heat stability and neutral flavor, grapeseed oil is one of the most versatile cooking oils. While it’s a favorite with chefs, though, it often flies under the radar with home cooks.
Keep grapeseed oil in mind for searing, grilling, or sautéing foods that are flavorful on their own, like a well-marbled steak or piece of king salmon. You can also use grapeseed oil in vinaigrettes to stretch pricier, more pungent oils like some extra-virgin olive oils without masking the flavor of any other ingredients.
Grapeseed oil helps balance the grassy, peppery notes of EVOO in this versatile salad dressing. Together, the two create an all-purpose dressing with a favorable fat profile that can dress up any salad.
The worst oils for cooking
Some of the worst oils for cooking —meaning they don't do well when heated — include, left to right, Dynasty toasted sesame oil, Zatural flaxseed oil, La Tourangelle coconut oil, La Tourangelle roasted walnut oil, and Nutiva hemp seed oil.
To preface, we’re not saying this next group of oils isn’t deserving of space in your kitchen. Many of them actually have plenty of good-for-you qualities and unique flavors that make recipes shine. They just don’t tolerate heat well, and should be reserved only for certain uses.
Toasted nut and seed oils (sesame oil, walnut oil, and peanut oil)
This class of specialty oils is big on flavor, but ranks low on heat tolerance. Cooks beware: exposing them to even low levels of heat can make their toasty flavor turn bitter. They’re best reserved as finishing oils to add depth and nutty aroma to soups, salads, whole grains, or roasted veggies.
These oils can sometimes be pricey, so it’s best to take a “less is more” approach to using them. For example, use toasted sesame oil in tandem with mild grapeseed oil in a dressing or sauce.
Toasted sesame oil turbo-charges this crunchy salad with toasty complexity. Paired with soy sauce, rice vinegar, a little sweetness from maple syrup, and aromatics like garlic and ginger, it’s a dynamic dressing you’ll want to keep handy.
Hemp seed oil and flaxseed oil
Both of these heart-healthy seed oils have nutty, rich flavor and a very desirable nutrient profile. (You can learn more about health benefits for hemp seed oil here and flaxseed oil here.) They’re too delicate, however, to be exposed to any level of heat, and have limited applications in the kitchen. Use them sparingly in dressings, or drizzle over toast, grain bowls, or fall-inspired salads. Also plan on making room in your refrigerator to store them because they can go rancid quickly at room temperature.
Drizzle a couple of teaspoons of flaxseed oil over a slice of toasted bread to add mildly nutty flavor. Then pile it high with avocado, cottage cheese, and juicy sliced tomato for this California-inspired breakfast toast.
This tropical oil has surged in popularity since gaining a (questionable) health halo the last few years. You can now find refined, unrefined (virgin), and even liquid coconut oil on store shelves. (Virgin, however, is the only one that actually delivers strong coconut flavor.) So this may come as a surprise, but coconut oil did not make our “best” list for cooking for two reasons: its low smoke point and high saturated fat content.
With a smoke point of 350°, coconut oil should only be used in low to moderate heat cooking like making pancakes, baking granola, or gently scrambling an egg — though it tastes especially good in no-bake treats like truffles, cheesecake, and energy bites.
Despite controversial claims, coconut oil is not considered a heart-healthy oil because its high saturated fat actually outranks butter's. And even though research shows the type of saturated fat in coconut oil can raise your “good” HDL cholesterol, it can also boost your “bad” LDL cholesterol. For this reason, experts suggest using it sparingly.
These no-bake treats use a small amount of coconut oil in combination with coconut flakes to capitalize on the nutty, fruity flavor. They also lean on natural sweeteners and whole-grain oats to create a more virtuous alternative to the classic cookie.
More smart ways to cook with oil
Since oil is a concentrated source of calories, most cooks want to use it wisely. Here are some healthy strategies to incorporate into your kitchen repertoire.