When I started cooking, I used olive oil for everything. I was familiar with it. I knew my mom used it. It was an easy choice to make. As I learned more about cooking and how to make food taste its best, it became apparent that there is not one all-purpose oil out there.
Cooking oils are all about their smoke points. The hotter you can safely heat something before it starts smoking, the better it is for frying. If it smokes at a lower temperature, it’s an oil you either want to use for soft sautees or maybe not even put in a frying pan at all. Sometimes an oil may have a high smoke point, but because it is so expensive and delicious, your best bet is to use it conservatively as a condiment to finish meals or to make dressings.
To be ready for any kind of dish, you probably need three or four kinds of oil in your pantry. But don’t worry! Once you know what they’re for, it’s easy to keep them straight and you’ll taste the delicious results in your meals. Depending on how you cook, you might not even need all of these on hand all of the time. I deep fry very infrequently, so I tend to buy a small amount of deep frying oil as needed.
Disclaimer: These oils are for stovetop cooking. If you’re interested in learning more about baking with different kinds of oils, there’s a quick primer here.
1. Frying Oil
When to use: When you want to deep fry something you need an oil that can withstand some serious heat. The idea behind frying is that the oil needs to be hot enough to quickly create a thin, crisp coating on whatever it is you’re frying. This prevents excessive oil from soaking into your food. You know those soggy french fries you hate? Oil that wasn’t properly heated is likely the culprit.
What kind to use: peanut oil, canola oil, safflower oil, coconut oil*
My recommendation: Peanut oil is my favorite for making potato chips! It’s inexpensive and has a low-profile flavor.
2. Meat-Searing Oil
When to use: Any time you’re cooking meat in a frying pan: steaks, chicken breast, fish, burgers. If you’re after that delicious, golden crust you get in restaurants, you need an oil that can withstand the high heat needed to create that shell. It’s the same concept behind frying oils.
What kind to use: Choose from the list above; grape seed oil is also an option here.
My recommendation: Coconut oil, it has lots of health benefits and your meat picks up a subtle coconut flavor.
3. Standard Cooking Oil
When to use: I like to have one reasonably priced oil on hand that I can throw in my frying pan for all sorts of uses over medium or medium-low heat. This is the kind of oil I will sweat vegetables in, gently scramble an egg in, and use in all other dishes where I’m not cranking the heat.
What kind to use: olive oil, vegetable oil, canola oil
My recommendation: Olive oil* is my go-to here. I buy an inexpensive option because I use a lot of it and I really enjoy the flavor of olive oil over most vegetable oils.
4. Expensive Tasty Oil
When to use: These are the #treatyoself oils. They taste delicious. The price tags will boggle your mind. But you will use them so sparingly, in such simple, delicious creations that they will be worth every penny. I literally made my mother bring me back two bottles of extra virgin olive oil from this one specific store in Rome the last time she went because it was so amazing. (True confession: she’s making me mail order it from now on.) I don’t let these oils anywhere near the heat of a pan, but I save them to drizzle over vegetables after they come out of the oven, to whisk into vinaigrettes, and to be sopped up by crusty french bread from my favorite bakery.
What to use: extra virgin olive oil, truffle oil (actually pressed from truffles, not infused oil), any other expensive specialty oils that cross your path.
My recommendation: Extra virgin olive oil from Italy: it’s spicy, pungent, and amazing. I make sure it’s made 100% in Italy from Italian olives.
There are a lot of oils out there and they all have different flavors and health profiles. There are also a host of different methods for extracting oils, each with different health and environmental implications.
*Coconut oil has a high smoke point when it is refined. Extra virgin coconut oil has a lower smoke point and is not good for frying (but perfect for making lotion!). Olive oil and extra virgin olive oil are the reverse: extra virgin olive oil has a high smoke point. It doesn’t make my deep fry or sear list because it gets expensive and there are other more cost-effective options that work just as well.