What Oil Should I Use for Cooking?

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What’s the best oil for sautéing, searing, roasting, or frying? Is high heat bad for oils? What about olive oil and coconut oil? Here's what you should know about smoke points and what oil to use, when!

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Cooks used to use just one or two fats for cooking. Fifty years ago, it may have been shortening and margarine; a hundred years ago, lard and butter.

Now our pantries contain bottles from all over the globe: olive oil from Spain, canola oil from Canada, coconut oil from the Philippines. We’re savvier about fats and health, yes, but with more choices come more questions.

But you don’t need to have an existential crisis every time you sauté mushrooms! Just check out this guide to which cooking oils are the best for different cooking methods.

WHAT IS A SMOKE POINT?

A smoke point is the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke. Smoke comes before burning. When scientists actually calculate smoke points, the oil isn’t burning, per se — volatile compounds evaporate and create blueish smoke.

Not all cooking oils behave the same way when heated. Some, like avocado oil and ghee, are very stable and can be heated up to 500°F (260°C) without issues. Others, like butter (not clarified) and walnut oil, will begin to degrade quickly if heated too high. They develop off flavors and unhealthy compounds.

But very stable oils like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil will hold steady after the smoke point. It takes up to half an hour of sustained heating before they degrade into something you shouldn’t consume.

Unless you are searing food (more about that below!), you do not want your oil to be smoking hot for very long. Excessive, sustained heat destroys the flavor and nutritional benefits of some oils. It also can create undesirable new compounds, like free radicals, that are not good for your body.

slice top off of garlic head, pour over with olive oil

Smoke points aren’t everything.

Smoke points are determined in a lab under conditions that are highly controlled, and frankly completely unlike any kitchen in real life. Even so, I’m guessing at some point you cranked up the burner under a skillet and noticed your oil smoking. If so, then you took that oil to the smoke point.

Most studies about smoke points look at oil that’s heated to high temperatures and held at that temperature for quite a while—even over an hour. No recipe I know of requires oil to be very hot for longer than ten minutes, tops. When it comes to an oil’s performance, time is more important than a specific temperature. Let’s keep it simple. When your oil smells and tastes burned, you know you you’ve gone too far.

The smoke point for different brands of the same oil are rarely identical because they’re not produced exactly the same. Even looking at charts of smoke points, you’ll find different temperatures for the same oils. (Look for yourself!)

Some oils, like virgin coconut and extra virgin olive oil, have lower smoke points, but they actually hold up better over prolonged heat because of their antioxidant content. (Read more about that here.)

So, keep your cool and use common sense.

What oil should I cook with?

4 QUICK TIPS ON COOKING WITH OIL

  1. The higher the heat, the more stable your oil should be. Stability is the oil’s ability to not degrade into harmful polar compounds. It is not correlated with smoke point.
  2. In general, the lighter the color of the oil, the more neutral its flavor. If you don’t want your cooking fat to overpower the other foods in a dish, opt for neutral oil like canola and grapeseed.
  3. Unrefined oils tend to taste like the thing they came from. Refined peanut oil is not very peanut-ty, but unrefined peanut oil is pleasantly nutty.
  4. Unfiltered oils are not lower in quality; they’re just not good for high heat applications because they still have tiny particles in them that will burn more quickly.

The Proper Way to Cook with Oil

When cooking with oil, keep in mind: hot pan + cold oil = foods won’t stick.

If you are sautéing, let the pan heat first. How long? Half a minute or less. Next, add the oil, and watch a few seconds. When the oil ripples and shimmers, then you can add your food. You want to hear an audible sizzling.

After the pan recovers from the temperature drop that’s natural after the food lands in it, you’ll likely need to reduce the heat of the burner bit by bit to keep your food from burning.

A Note About Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Before I get into oil guides and recommendations, you may be wondering: “Can’t I just use extra virgin olive oil for all my cooking needs? After all, that’s what you wrote in this post!”

It’s true that despite its lower smoke point, extra virgin olive oil actually holds up better over prolonged heat than higher smoke point oils because of its antioxidant content (read more about that here), which just goes to show that smoke point isn’t everything!

So, yes! You can use extra virgin olive oil for all cooking up to 400°F, which includes searing, sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, and low-temperature frying.

The only reason you may not want to use extra virgin olive oil all the time – and why I recommend other oils below for these cooking methods – is that extra virgin olive oil tends to be more expensive than other oils, and if the flavor isn’t key for you in that recipe, it may not be worth it to you to use extra virgin olive oil if you can get by with a cheaper oil.

But if you want to use it for most everything, go right ahead! Our favorite extra virgin olive oil is pretty affordable at $12 per liter, so we don’t feel bad about using it for most of our cooking.

place flank steak in frying pan

THE BEST OIL FOR SEARING

Use a highly stable oil with a smoke point of 400°F/ 205°C or above.

Searing requires enough heat to form a seared crust on the food. Since the pan’s heat is likely between 400-450°F (205-232°C), you want heavy hitters here. Refined neutral oils like canola, soy, vegetable, and peanut are classic go-tos, but extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil are less refined and perform just as well.

If a recipe calls for a smoking-hot skillet—as some recipes do—then yes, your oil will smoke! It’s okay, as long as the oil isn’t smoking the entire time you are searing. The temperature of the skillet and the oil drop once you add your food, and the very high initial temperature is part of what gives your food a good sear in the first place.

My oil pick for searing is avocado oil. It’s less refined than other high-heat oils like canola or sunflower oil.

Other oils you can use for searing are:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Ghee/clarified butter
  • Extra virgin olive oil (if the flavor makes sense in the recipe)

stir fry broccoli, chicken, almonds

THE BEST OIL FOR STIR-FRYING

Use a highly stable oil with a smoke point of 400°F / 205°C or above.

When you stir-fry, the wok or skillet is often either smoking hot or somewhere just below it. Like searing, it’s okay for the oil to be at or above its smoke point when stir-frying, because the oil’s temperature will go down when you add food, move it around a lot, and cook it quickly. Plus, the oil won’t denature all at once even if it does get really hot.

My oil pick for stir-frying is peanut oil. Its flavor pairs well with many typical stir-fry recipes.

Other oils you can use for stir-frying are:

  • Avocado oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil (if the flavor makes sense in the recipe)

fry onions in cast iron pan for spanish tortilla

THE BEST OIL FOR SAUTÉING

Use a flavorful or neutral oil with a smoke point of 350°F or above.

When you sauté food in a skillet with a little bit of fat over medium-to-high heat, the temperature of the pan’s surface is between 350-400° F (176-205° C), so moderate-to-high smoke point oils are the way to go.

My oil pick for sautéing is extra-virgin olive oil when I want that flavor, or avocado oil when I don’t.

Other oils you can use for high-heat sautéing are:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Ghee/clarified butter
  • Refined coconut oil
  • Any olive oil

Oils to use for medium-heat sautéing:

  • All of the above, plus virgin coconut oil, butter, and bacon grease

Oven fried chicken fry the chicken

THE BEST OIL FOR FRYING

Use a highly stable oil with a smoke point of 425°F / 218°C or above.

Frying recipes usually call for the oil to be anywhere between 325-425°F (163-218°C). However, sometimes the temperature spikes between batches of food, so best to go for an oil with a higher smoke point.

My oil pick for frying is peanut oil.

Other oils you can use for frying are:

  • Avocado oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Ghee/clarified butter
  • Refined coconut oil
  • Extra virgin olive oil (if the flavor makes sense and the cost is justified)

Basting a Mediterranean Roast Chicken

THE BEST OIL FOR ROASTING

Use a flavorful or neutral oil with a smoke point of 350°F / 176° C or above.

Even though the oven itself might be cranked up to 450°F (232°C), the surface of roasting food does not always reach that temperature. Olive oil is the classic go-to here.

My oil pick for roasting is extra-virgin olive oil when I want that flavor, and peanut or avocado oil when I don’t.

Other oils to use for roasting are:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Canola oil
  • Coconut oil

What are your go-to cooking oils?

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Products We Love

Zoe Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1 Liter Tin (Pack of 2)

Zoe Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1 Liter Tin (Pack of 2)

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Chosen Foods 100% Pure Avocado, 16.9 oz Oil

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La Tourangelle Roasted Peanut Oil, 16.9 oz

La Tourangelle Roasted Peanut Oil, 16.9 oz

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Sara Bir

Sara Bir a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and the author of two cookbooks: The Fruit Forager’s Companion and Tasting Ohio. Past gigs include leading chocolate factory tours, slinging street cart sausages, and writing pop music criticism. Sara skates with her local roller derby team as Carrion the Librarian.

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