How Many Cooking Oils Do You Actually Need?

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

Just because supermarket shelves are crammed with dozens of different oils doesn’t mean you need to buy them all.

Here at the test kitchen, just three types of oil satisfies most of our cooking needs. Read on to learn about their different uses in the kitchen, and our recommended oil storage tips.

Must-Have Oil #1: Vegetable Oil

This oil should have a neutral taste that highlights (rather than masks) the flavors of other ingredients. Some varieties, such as corn and canola, take on subtle but distinct flavors in certain applications, so we make a point of avoiding them and go for a blend instead; that way, no one flavor will dominate.

Must-Have Oil #2: Everyday Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

In recent tests we’ve found that the flavors of extra-virgin olive oil (or EVOO) are driven off more thoroughly—and rapidly—by heat than we ever knew. So for cooking Mediterranean dishes like tomato sauce, moussaka, and paella in which olive oil is traditional, we stock the cheapest bottle we can find.

Must-Have Oil #3: Premium Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

The hallmark of a truly superior-quality EVOO is a pronounced flavor profile that can range from richly fruity, to grassy, to peppery and sharp. We reserve this good stuff for cold applications like dressings and for drizzling on food after cooking.

HOW TO STORE OIL

Store all oils in a cool, dark place. Store nut and seed oils in the refrigerator to help stave off rancidity, but avoid refrigerating olive oil. According to olive oil experts, repeatedly chilling olive oil and rewarming it to room temperature can create condensation in the bottle that degrades the flavor.

CHECKING FOR FRESHNESS

Properly stored, vegetable oil should last six months once opened and EVOO at least three months. If you’re unsure whether an oil is past its prime, heat a few tablespoons in a skillet. If vegetable oil smells anything other than neutral—and if olive oil smells musty rather than fruity—discard it.

UNDERSTUDY OILS

If you're set on the essentials above, we also recommend these two types of oils to round out any well-stocked kitchen.

BEST DRESSED: TOASTED SESAME OIL

We drizzle this nutty-tasting Asian oil over everything from dumplings to stir-fries to noodles and soups.

FRY GUY: PEANUT OIL

Though not a must, this neutral-flavored oil has a high smoke point, which means that it’s able to withstand prolonged heating without breaking down and makes it an excellent choice for deep frying.

Spaghetti

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Spaghetti with Lemon and Olive Oil (al Limone)

For the perfect amount of lemon flavor in our Spaghetti with Lemon and Olive Oil recipe, we mitigated the fresh lemon juice and lemon zest with cream. Using equal amounts cream and olive oil kept our recipe’s sauce creamy and fruity.

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