Best kind of cooking oil?
October 5, 2005 6:00 PM   Subscribe

What is the best kind of cooking oil?

When I go to the store there'll be canola oil, corn oil, "vegetable" oil, etc.

Now obviously some things like olive oil are for certain uses but the above types all look the same to me.

What are the relative merits of each for frying, sauteeing, etc.? I'm interested in a combination of healthiness and taste.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim to Food & Drink (39 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's also peanut oil, which I've always liked, because it's kind of "neutral". As for the healthiness of it, since I like it, it's probably bad for you. It's kind of hard to find.
posted by interrobang at 6:10 PM on October 5, 2005

Those are basically all "neutral" oils. You really only need one in your kitchen, for deep-frying. Canola oil is a good choice since it has a high smoke point.

"Vegetable" oil is usually soybean oil.
posted by smackfu at 6:20 PM on October 5, 2005

The best kind of cooking oil for what?
If I'm sauteeing pancetta, I generally use olive, since the flavor of olive oil goes well with it; but if I'm cooking meat, particularly beef, I'll use peanut, since peanut tastes best with that...I think the answer is that you're going to need 2 or 3 different kinds of oil, and learn to use them according to what you're making.

Here's pretty much everything you may ever need to know about cooking oils (pardon the gawdawful colors).
posted by Lycaste at 6:24 PM on October 5, 2005

Olive oil is the good oil. Good olive oil, is great oil. Great olive oil is the best oil. And the best olive oil? I suspect it would be the pinnacle of all oils.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:34 PM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

Lycaste is right; each oil is good for something different.

Smackfu is wrong in saying that they're all neutral. I only ever used peanut oil to fry microwave burritos (it makes them seem real!), so I don't know much about the whole issue, but saying that they're "all neutral" is incorrect.
posted by interrobang at 6:35 PM on October 5, 2005

By "all", I meant the ones listed in the original question. Sorry for the confusion.
posted by smackfu at 6:45 PM on October 5, 2005

I use olive when I want the flavor of olive oil. I've heard it's healthy. The taste of olive oil is not appropriate in some circumstances. Also, olive oil burns at a relatively low temperature so you can't use it for some applications, e.g. popping popcorn.

I use canola when I want a healthy oil that doesn't have any particular taste. This is oil I use most frequently. It is also said to be healthy.

I sometimes use peanut oil for asian cooking. Again, flavor thing. With peanut oil you have to be careful that it doesn't go rancid. I don't think it's particularly healthy, as oils go.

I also use sesame oil when I want that particular flavor. Again, you have to be a little careful it doesn't go rancid. Toasted sesame oil has a much stronger flavor than non-toasted.
posted by alms at 6:46 PM on October 5, 2005

I use olive oil to pop popcorn all the time. I suppose it smokes a little bit, but it's never been a problem for me.
posted by Doug at 6:50 PM on October 5, 2005

My best friend is greek. She uses olive oil for everything. Now I do too. Really tasty, and apparently good for you too.
posted by lorrer at 6:52 PM on October 5, 2005

Also, what Lycaste said. There is no one-size-fits all. I have vegetable, olive oil, and canola oil in my kitchen, and I consider that to be living spartan. I really need to pick up some peanut oil and other olive oils.
posted by keswick at 6:56 PM on October 5, 2005

One big difference between oils is the smoke point: the temperature at which the oil will start burning, ruining the flavor and risking a fire. You want to definitely keep the oil below its smoke point, so the oil you choose will depend on your cooking technique and what you're cooking. Please don't try deep frying with extra virgin olive oil....
posted by mr_roboto at 6:57 PM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I like corn oil for cooking.
posted by davy at 7:00 PM on October 5, 2005

Olive oil is a pretty good general purpose oil, but it has a relatively low smoke point, so it burns if you use it for high heat cooking. Good olive oil has a distinctive flavor which is awesome, but is not always appropriate. "Light" olive oil is light in flavor (not calories), so you might try that.

If I had to pick just one for general cooking, it would be grapeseed oil. It's healthy, has an extremely high smoke point, and a neutral flavor. I use it for just about everything.
posted by Caviar at 7:00 PM on October 5, 2005

Be very careful what oil you use for what temperature you are using. As a general rule of thumb: if you're at relatively low temperatures, butter is good for flavor. If you need "oil," use olive oil. If you are at high temperatures, use canola oil.

The reason for this is smoke points (..."the temperature where...the fatty acids in the oil start to decompose" and you get smoke). If you deep-fry with olive oil, you may get bad tasting food, even if it doesn't smoke you out of your house. Vegetable or canola oil won't smoke and will give a better taste.

This site has a handy list of smoke points.
posted by BradNelson at 7:04 PM on October 5, 2005

I would just add a caution to alms post that Sesame Oil - especially the toasted variety - has a very strong flavor and is actually used as a condiment in Asian cooking, not an oil.
posted by garbo at 7:08 PM on October 5, 2005

Sesame Oil : Don't cook with sesame oil! It's just there for flavoring. Don't get me wrong -- I just used 2 tsp in kung pao for tonight's dinner -- but it's flavor, not for frying/sautéing, &c. Microscopically low smoking point.

Olive Oil : Yum, excellent for salads (do not rub nickels here, folks), lower-temperature sauté; somewhat distinctively flavorful. Good for you!

Peanut Oil : For Asian dishes and, due to its high smoking point, perfect for higher-temperature sauté and deep-frying. I often use this half-and-half with clarified butter for browning meats that will become a stew or be braised or fricaseed. I also use this for popcorn (with a West-Bend Stir Crazy) if I don't have any bacon fat on hand. Definite flavor profile, very nice.

Canola Oil : This I know less about.

Vegetable Oil : WTF is that? Tastes like ass, well, not like I know, but it doesn't taste like much, which therefore makes it creepy, unless you're baking a cake.

Walnut Oil : Like sesame oil, for flavor only; just use this in a salad dressing.

Long story short : For me, olive, peanut and sesame oil at a minimum, and all near the stove. In the pantry, I keep a bottle of peanut oil that's specifically for deep-frying (since you need sort of a patina on it, anyway).

What's for dinner?
posted by mimi at 7:12 PM on October 5, 2005

On the other hand, buckwheat pancakes cooked in a little sesame oil are really good.

I've discovered recently that the best thing to cook meat in is bacon fat. Zucchini cooked in bacon fat is also superb.
posted by zadcat at 7:35 PM on October 5, 2005

If you want ethnic foods to taste right you must use the correct oil. Indian = ghee/mustard oil, Italian= olive, Mexican=corn etc.The previous are generalizations but are fairly representative. If you want to get really anal try to find fats/oils from the region that the particular cuisine/recipe originates, down to the county/town level

I belive that the most important thing as far a health is concerned is to try and use only coldpressed and unrefined oil. The processing techniques involved with the refining of oil and the high heat, pressure and solvents used in standard extraction introduces many undesirable elements into the finished product. These include solvent residue, free radicals and the destruction of many of the healthy fats.

I think that organic butter is a better alternative to most refined oils if one had to make the choice between the two. This of course is leaving aside the issue of saturated vs unsaturated fats, but for most people who are not getting to many of their calories from fat it should not make to much of a difference.

I think the best all around oil is a cold pressed light olive oil and second is organic butter,
posted by flummox at 7:40 PM on October 5, 2005

You should not use Canola oil, ever. It is considered a "healthy" oil because of its cholesterol content (by 15 year old standards). BUT it is very bitter when pressed, so it is almost always treated by heating and deodorizing, which introduces lots of free radicals into it. You should use cold-pressed oils when you can, for these reasons. Olice oil is probably your best choice, and peanut oil and coconut oil have their defenders, too. Look for "cold pressed" or "unprocessed" on the labels.
posted by scarabic at 7:45 PM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

Another vote against canola, purely on grounds of taste. When I want a light-flavoured oil with a higher smoke point I use sunflower oil. Otherwise I generally use olive oil. I have ordinary refined olive oil for shallow frying and general purpose use, and some extra virgin for dressings and other applications where taste is important. I like peanut oil but the flavour is wrong for many dishes.

Unhealthy though it may be, pure beef tallow is the best for deep frying French fries. Ghee is indeed delicious for Indian food, and clarified butter in general tastes great.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:49 PM on October 5, 2005

UCL Study Places Free Radical Therapies in Doubt. Meanwhile, coconut oil is loaded with saturated fat. There are tons of "infomercial"-style websites out there claiming that coconut oil "isn't really harmful". It would be interesting to hear if there's actual studies to back up those claims. In the meantime, I'm sticking with my canola oil.
posted by gimonca at 8:52 PM on October 5, 2005

It is considered a "healthy" oil because of its cholesterol content

I think you mean saturated fat content--all vegetable oils are cholesterol-free. Last I checked, reducing saturated fat content is still desirable.

To add to the confusion, most references I can find say that Canola and olive oils have similar smoke points--about 400°F?
posted by trevyn at 8:54 PM on October 5, 2005

i miss mustard oil :-(
posted by flyby22 at 9:28 PM on October 5, 2005

trevyn, I think the difference is whether the olive oil is highly-refined or not. Refining removes many interesting wee chemicals that break down at lower temperatures. Unfortunately they're the tasty ones, which is why we purists like extra-virgin oil. People are often very unclear whether they're talking about refined or virgin olive oil. See here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:30 PM on October 5, 2005

Most conventional Canola (rapeseed) oil is genetically engineered, if GMOs matter to you.
posted by pointilist at 9:31 PM on October 5, 2005

I do my popcorn in peanut oil or safflower oil, because it doesn't smoke and tastes good. I don't butter popcorn any more, I use seasoned salt (Lawrey's) instead. A trick I discovered when I had no butter, and found this was better (I adore butter in general).
posted by Goofyy at 9:39 PM on October 5, 2005

Peanut oil is pretty awesome for cooking steak in a cast-iron skillet, by the way.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 9:54 PM on October 5, 2005

Peanut oil is excellent for deep-frying because of its high smoke point.
posted by kindall at 9:59 PM on October 5, 2005

I would check with your doctor before relying on peanut oil as your primary oil.

The ubiquity of peanut oil (in processed and restaurant foods) is suspected of being partially to blame for the increasing prevalence of peanut allergies. You're probably not going to develop a peanut allergy from using it, but if you have small kids you may want to think about whether or not you want to expose them to peanut oil every day in your daily cooking. Similarly, consuming nuts during pregnancy increases the risk of kids with nut allergies. I don't know if peanut oil would qualify as a nut for those purposes, but if it's relevant, you should find out.

I'm not a doctor, an allergist, a biologist or anything of the sort, I just remember reading about the peanut oil ubiquity as a potential cause of increased peanut allergies in a newspaper or magazine article on the topic. (And no, it wasn't just saying that having peanut oil everywhere makes it a pain to have these allergies, it was definitely arguing causation). So anyway, if you're thinking of going with peanut, consider consulting with your doctor first, since he/she will be in a better position to evaluate the evidence and tailor advice to your situation.
posted by duck at 10:09 PM on October 5, 2005

The question of how to navigate fats correctly is a complex one, and it sounds like the book isn't closed on free radicals. I am, however, only relating information given to me by someone who just got a degree in Nutrition. I am willing to assume she's working with current and complete information. The "conventional wisdom" on these subjects has changed so much over the past decades that frankly, I have no idea what to believe anymore - and I don't take 10 year old wisdom like "canola oil = good" at face value anymore.

She uses coconut oil all the time. According to her, the pressed coconut oil you buy for cooking at the hippie grocery store is not the same stuff that was in a lot of junk foods and gave the oil such a bad name. She claims that the way its treated prior to use is important, and that raw, unprocessed coconut oil is one of the healthiest you can cook with.

I throw up my hands at that point. I've heard all the same high-saturated-fat stuff you have. But I am willing to consider that coconut oil isn't something you want to see on a processed food label, but that the raw product itself might be a completely different story. Like I said, talk to the nutritionist.
posted by scarabic at 10:11 PM on October 5, 2005

There's also peanut oil, which I've always liked, because it's kind of "neutral". As for the healthiness of it, since I like it, it's probably bad for you. It's kind of hard to find.

Just to share an anecdote, when I was a kid I tried to make brownies, and discovered we were out of vegetable oil halfway through. I used peanut oil instead.

Holy crap, the brownies were screwed up. The physical properties of the brownies were totally bizarre. They were totally hard, and leaked pure oil. They tasted somewhat peanut-y, and gross.
posted by delmoi at 10:38 PM on October 5, 2005

Generally speaking, corn/safflower/canola/vegetable/grapeseed/peanut oil are all known as "neutral tasting" oils. They are all highly refined oils with high smoke points--which makes them fairly interchangeable for most cooking tasks. They are all also monounsaturated, which isn't as heart healthy as polyunsaturated extra-virgin olive oil.

As far as personal preferences go, safflower oil is usually far more expensive than the others, so I avoid it. I have little experience with corn or grapeseed oil (available at your local persian market on the cheap), so I'll refrain from commenting upon those. I find that canola oil has a weird off taste, which is especially noticeable when deep frying, so my oil of choice is vegetable oil (made from soybeans). When making asian food, I'll use some peanut oil.

For pretty much anything else using oil that doesn't involve high heat, extra virgin olive oil is the way to go. The best brand for the price that I've found is Goya, which is supposedy carried in supermarkets nationally, but I could only find at a local hispanic market.
posted by LimePi at 10:57 PM on October 5, 2005

One more bit to throw in: some safflower oils that I've used in the past have left an icky, sticky residue on pans.
posted by gimonca at 5:27 AM on October 6, 2005

Extra-virgin olive oil 95% of the time. Trader Joe's EVOO "packed in Italy" (probably from Greek olives) is my cheap workhorse for cooking. I don't really do any deep-frying, and I put up with the fact that the EVOO will smoke when searing stuff at high heat. When baking sweet things, I use corn or soy (vegetable) oil interchangably. Peanut oil sometimes when I'm making SE Asian food.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:55 AM on October 6, 2005

And oh yeah, I never use canola. Because it tastes like butt.
posted by rxrfrx at 5:56 AM on October 6, 2005

Oh, and another thing. DO NOT, under any circumstances, pronounce EVOO as 'eevooh'. There's a special circle of hell reserved for you and Rachel Ray.
posted by Caviar at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2005

Hunh? Rachel says ee-vee-oh-oh. Then giggles and flashes a grin.
posted by mnology at 9:21 AM on October 6, 2005

Whatever. Same difference. It's olive oil. It doesn't need a cutesy abbreviation.
posted by Caviar at 8:49 PM on October 6, 2005

Stay away from any oil made in a chemistry lab.. ie. use oil that humans have been eating for thousands of years. There are a number of theories that the modern heart disease epidemic tracks perfectly the introduction of modern oils. Most of these modern oils were made not for taste or health (although they claim so) but because they have properties that increase revenues along the supply chain ie. stable and never go breakdown (imagine that in your blood stream), made from cheap materials (cottonseed, yummy cotton, I love to eat cotton). Basically, stick with olive oil and coconut oil (Phillipeanians dont die of heart disease and they use coconut oil like we use butter).
posted by stbalbach at 8:10 AM on October 7, 2005

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