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All About Oils

By Kathleen Brennan Published

Here’s everything you need to know about selecting, using, and storing cooking oils.

We use a variety of cooking oils in the kitchen, and each oil has its own advantages. Some are great for frying, while others are ideal for baking or making salad dressing. No single oil is perfect for every task, so for the best results, it’s important to know what the different types are and how and when to use them.

Vegetable Oil

"Vegetable oil" is a generic term that encompasses any edible oil made from plant sources, including nuts, seeds, grains, beans, olives, or a blend of these. Cooking oils specifically labeled “vegetable oil” are usually made from soybeans. But “vegetable oil” can also be made with canola or corn oil or a blend that may also include other oils, such as sunflower, safflower, or flaxseed. Most commercially available vegetable oils have been refined, bleached, and deodorized; as a result, they have a neutral flavor that makes them a perfect blank canvas for the bold flavors in sauces, vinaigrettes, and dressings. They also have high smoking points, so they’re ideal for baking, sautéing, and frying. For most applications, we’ve found that it doesn’t really matter which type of vegetable oil you use. But there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

  • Corn Oil 

    Best For: Frying or baking. We’ve found that compounds in corn oil provide a sour or pungent flavor at room temperature—such as in mayonnaise or dressings. The same compounds change for the better when heated, lending a much more pleasant flavor to fried food than other oils. 

  • Canola Oil and Soybean Oil

    Best For: Uncooked applications. While you can use this oil for baking, sautéing, or frying, unsaturated fatty acids break down when these oils are heated, generating flavors that some tasters described as slightly fishy or metallic-tasting. 

  • Peanut Oil

    Best For: Baking and high-heat applications, such as stir-frying or deep frying. Just be aware that it costs twice as much as canola or corn oil and is off-limits for people with peanut allergies.

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Technically, olive oil is also a vegetable oil, as it’s made from olives. Extra-virgin olive oil, made from the first cold-pressing of olives, is the highest grade, and at its best it’s lively, bright, and full-bodied. Depending on the type of olives it’s made from and how ripe those olives are when picked, extra-virgin olive oil can taste anywhere from grassy to peppery to buttery to nutty. We like supermarket oils for a range of applications (sautéing, dressings, finishing dishes), but reserve the pricier premium oils for finishing dishes or dressings. These uncooked applications let the distinctive flavors really shine; when the oil is heated, many of those flavors disappear. Although supermarket versions can vary in quality, 10 of the 11 we tasted most recently were acceptable.

Sesame Oil

Sesame oil is one of the oldest foods made by humans; archaeologists have found evidence of its production going back thousands of years. Today, it’s widely used throughout Asia, and the United States is one of its biggest importers. There are two types of sesame oil, but we rarely if ever use the plain kind, which has almost no color, flavor, or scent. Instead, we use toasted (or roasted) sesame oil much more often; it has an intensely toasty, nutty aroma and flavor; a darker color; and a much lower smoking point. We generally use it as a finishing oil—adding a teaspoon or two at the very end of cooking in any number of recipes involving meat, fish, vegetables, noodles, or rice—and incorporate it into dressings and sauces. Its flavor can vary widely by brand, depending largely on the seeds’ roasting time and temperature.

  • Plain

    Best For: Sautéing and frying 

     


     

    Toasted

    Best For: Finishing drizzles, dressings, and sauces 

     

    ATK Recommends

    Ottogi Premium Roasted Sesame Oil ($11.99 for 10.82 ounces). Look for the bottle form; we found that the tinned version isn’t as good.

Avocado Oil

Extracted from the pulp of avocados, avocado oil is rich in healthy fats and antioxidants. Food-grade avocado oil comes in two forms: cold-pressed extra virgin (unrefined) and refined. The former has a pleasant buttery, grassy avocado-like flavor that shines best when drizzled over mild-tasting foods such as fish or vegetables. Refined avocado oil has a neutral taste and the highest smoking point of any cooking oil, so you can swap it for vegetable oil when sautéing or frying. Note that both types of avocado oil are pricey, though; the refined version costs about three times the cost of a standard vegetable oil.

  • Unrefined

    Best For: Finishing drizzles and dressings 

     


     

    Refined

    Best For: Sautéing and frying (particularly deep frying)

Coconut Oil

  • This sweet-smelling, slightly tropical-tasting (and pricey) oil is pressed from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts. Used in Africa, South America, and Asia for centuries, coconut oil gained “superfood” status in the United States a few years ago. It’s high in lauric acid, which proponents tout for its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, among other things. Solid at room temperature, coconut oil is popular with vegans as a nondairy butter alternative. It’s available in two forms: unrefined and refined. The former, commonly labeled “virgin” or “pure,” has a strong coconut flavor, while refined coconut oil is virtually tasteless and odorless. Since we have limited use for an oil that makes our food smell and taste like a piña colada, we generally stick with the refined version. Melted, it performs just as well as melted butter in chocolate chip cookies, though we miss butter’s sweet dairy flavor. Ditto when we cream the oil for cake and use it to sauté vegetables. But if you’re avoiding dairy, refined coconut oil makes a perfectly good substitute for butter in sautéing and baking.

     

    Best For: Sautéing and baking

Rice Bran Oil

  • Made from the outer husk or layer (bran) of rice grains, this oil is commonly used in Asian countries. In its refined state, its high smoking point and mild flavor make it suitable for stir-frying and deep frying. In taste tests comparing rice bran oil with canola oil, we consistently preferred foods prepared with rice bran oil. It was especially good when used to fry foods, producing breaded chicken cutlets and stir-fried beef that tasters described as lighter and less oily than those made with canola oil. It's a great alternative to canola oil—if you can afford it, as it's nearly twice as expensive.

     

    Best For: Sautéing and frying (particularly deep frying)

     

    ATK Recommends

    California Rice Oil Company Rice Bran Oil ($2.99 for 25 ounces)

Walnut Oil

  • Like most nut oils, including almond and hazelnut, walnut oil is available in both refined and unrefined versions but is off-limits for people with tree-nut allergies. Skip refined walnut oil, which is relatively flavorless and offers no advantages over other neutral oils that are less expensive. Distinctively yet delicately flavored, unrefined walnut oil is best used in raw applications or as a finishing oil; when heated, it loses much of its flavor. It’s fantastic in vinaigrettes; tossed with grains and pasta; and drizzled over beef, lamb, shrimp, and even pancakes.

     

    Best For: Finishing drizzles, dressings, and sauces

Everything Else You Might Want to Know About Cooking Oil

Why Oil Smoking Points Matter

Want to know which oil to use for a cooking application? Check out its smoking point.

Shimmer, Deep-Fry, and Smoke: How Oil Behaves at Different Temperatures

We've all seen these terms in recipes. What does each one mean? And how do you know you've achieved it?

How to Tell If an Oil Is Rancid

Oil doesn't keep forever. To learn when it's time to ditch the bottle, read on.

How to Shop For and Store Oil

All oil will eventually go rancid. To ensure that your oil can be used—and for as long as possible—we have a few tips.

How to Clean Up Oil Spills

Dropped a container of oil on the floor? Here's what to do.

How to Handle an Oil Fire

Grease fires can be scary. Here's how to fight them if they occur.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.