"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.
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 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.
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.