The Best Cooking Oils and When to Use Them

Oil picture

Olive oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil. Which one do you use when? And with current hype about one oil or another, how do you know which oils are healthiest?

The truth is it’s confusing. Below is some more info about each kind of oil along with my own oil preferences.

First, a few oil facts you should know:

  1. All oils are 100% fat. Every single kind has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon. No matter which kind of oils you use, eat them in small amounts.
  2. Almost all oils are more heart-healthy than animal fats (butter, lard, fatty meat, etc) because they’re mostly unsaturated fat rather than saturated.
  3. Every oil has a different ratio of “monounsaturated” and “polyunsaturated” fats (omega-6 and omega-3), so to make sure you get some of each, use a variety of oils in your kitchen (2-3 kinds is fine).

The Best Oils

Extra Virgin Olive Oil– A good household staple. Great balance of mono and poly-unsaturated fats, mechanically pressed so not chemically refined, and great flavor.  Different brands/regions have different flavors, so experiment to find the ones you like best.  Use for drizzling, in salads and raw foods, or for cooking when you want added flavor.

Canola Oil – Another good household staple, if you buy organic. Has no flavor so it’s great for baking, Asian & Mexican cooking and pan-frying. Canola oil has gotten a bad rap, but I personally still think it’s a good choice. Make sure to buy organic, since canola is almost always genetically modified in the U.S.

Grapeseed Oil – Very light flavor and high smoking point, so good for many types of cooking.  More polyunsaturated fats than most oils, which is good because most Americans don’t get enough polyunsaturated fats.

Sesame Oil – Intense sesame flavor, so a little goes a long way.  Fantastic for Asian sauces and dressings, because you don’t have to use much and therefore can keep the fat/calorie content of these dressings low.  One of my favorite recipes using sesame oil.

Walnut Oil – High in Omega-3 fatty acids, and delicious nutty flavor.  Use in salad dressings and when only lightly cooking something that you want to have lots of flavor.

Coconut Oil – The only oil that’s high in saturated fat — in fact, it has twice as much saturated fat per tablespoon as butter. This oil has been getting lots of hype lately, partly because the saturated fats are thought to be healthier than saturated fat in meat. More on coconut oil here.

Other Oils

Safflower/Sunflower Oil – Flavorless like canola or vegetable oil, and a good mix of unsaturated fats. Low in saturated fat. Good for the same uses as canola and vegetable oils. Try to buy organic.

Regular Olive Oil – Chemically refined (unlike virgin & extra-virgin) which means it loses some polyphenols (antioxidants), but cheaper and lighter in flavor than extra virgin olive oil. You could use this one in cooking and extra virgin for salads or raw foods where you want more flavor.

Vegetable Oil – Flavorless, high smoking point (so it’s good for high heat cooking & frying) and good for baking. I’d choose canola over vegetable oil for the mono/poly fat ratio, but vegetable oil is cheap.

Peanut Oil – Light flavor and very high smoking point, so best oil for frying (not that I recommend frying as a cooking method).

Flaxseed Oil – Most people buy this as a supplement because they want more Omega-3 fatty acids. Yes it’s healthy, but it’s probably better to eat fish, walnuts and avocado for Omega-3′s, rather than add this oil to things you already eat. (Note: unless you’re reducing calories and fat somewhere else in your diet, you may gain weight using flax oil as a supplement).

Soybean Oil – Best to avoid, since it’s in nearly every commercial/processed food we eat. And, it’s almost always genetically modified.

Palm Kernel Oil – This is what most processed & packaged food companies are now using in place of trans fats, which have become taboo.  Beware of products that have palm kernel oil, because 80% of it’s fat is saturated–worse than butter.

What I use

  • Extra virgin olive oil - I use this for almost everything – especially salads, sautés, drizzling and dipping
  • Organic canola or grapeseed oil - for baking, Mexican and some Asian dishes
  • Sesame oil - for Asian dishes & dressings – delicious flavor
  • Coconut oil – I use this once in awhile in baked goods, granola, pancakes and for Asian cooking

One last tip

Most oils get rancid – a.k.a. they spoil – after a few months in the cupboard. Buy oils in small amounts so you can minimize waste.

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  1. Great article! I’m sharing a link to this, because this can be so confusing these days! A question about sauteing…you mention that it’s ok to use olive oil, but how do we be sure to not get the temperature too high? I’m concerned about smoking points with various oils.

    • I personally am not very worried about smoking points. But if you want to err on the safe side, I’d recommend just using EV olive oil for quick sautés, salad dressings and other raw or quick-cooking dishes etc. For dishes you’ll be cooking for awhile, use canola or grapeseed then drizzle in a little EVOO at the end for flavor. Thanks for sharing, Anne :)