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Even a skilled home cook may only have a few cooking oils in their pantry, but the cooking oil section tends to be one of the most robust and diverse in the store.

So—why so many?

Even when you just focus on oil as a cooking medium (as opposed to an ingredient, which we’ll save for another blog post), the oil you cook with can have a big impact on your finished dish in nearly every sense from flavor and texture to aroma and appearance. But ultimately, picking the right oil typically comes down to two factors:

– Flavor
– Cooking temperature

Different Types of Cooking Oils

The vast majority of recipes in American kitchens call for cooking in either a “neutral oil” or extra virgin olive oil, but there are dozens of different oils you can keep in your pantry to great effect. If you have dietary restrictions, favor certain global cuisines, or just want a robust pantry, think about stocking your oils in these categories: Olive oil, neutral oils, and “other” oils.

About olive oil, briefly

Olive oil is one of the most commonly used oils in European-rooted cuisine thanks to its versatility, myriad health benefits, and subtle fruity flavor it imparts on a dish. It’s chock-full of antioxidant polyphenols and healthy fats that promote better cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease, too.

And it’s down-right delicious.

Aside from high-heat cooking techniques, olive oil is arguably the most dynamic cooking oil out there thanks to how well its flavor enhances dishes. What’s more, it can be infused with flavors to make wonderful creations like lemon olive oil, chili olive oil, and truffle oil.

Most commonly, recipes will call for extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or on occasion, light olive oil. EVOO is the purest form of the oil, sporting a deeper green color, more nutrients, and more overall flavor, but has a lower smoke point and a shorter shelf life. Light olive oil is generally less expensive and has a higher smoke point (can withstand higher cooking temperatures) than EVOO, but has less flavor and fewer nutrients due to the heated pressing method that’s used to extract it from olives.

About neutral oils, briefly

“Neutral” is a blanket term that generally refers to clearer, lighter-colored oils that don’t aren’t meant to affect the flavor of your dish and can often be used to cook at higher temperatures. The common neutral oils (like canola, vegetable, and grapeseed) are also much less expensive than olive oil. Between their low price point and high smoke point, they’re common in kitchens for a wide range of uses from searing and stir frying to deep frying and sauteing.

Avocado oil is a neutral that’s nearly in a category of its own. It’s one of the healthiest cooking oils available with high levels of healthy unsaturated fats, vitamin E, and antioxidants, and has the highest smoke point of nearly any cooking oil on the market. However, it also has a high price point.

About “other” oils, briefly

We think of “other” oils as anything you don’t use enough to justify keeping in your pantry. Unless your household has dietary restrictions or you tend to cook a certain culture’s recipes (Indian or Thai, for example) often, you probably won’t encounter many recipes calling for oils like ghee (clarified butter), palm oil, coconut oil, or sesame oil. While they each have their own distinct characteristics, they’re less versatile than olive and neutral oils.

Sesame oil, for example, has such a strong flavor that it can overpower a dish, so it’s commonly used in small quantities as an ingredient rather than as a cooking medium. Palm oil is extremely neutral in flavor and has a high smoke point, but has a less-than-friendly environmental impact when compared to other oils. Coconut oil has become increasingly popular as a go-to cooking oil in certain health circles, but contains high levels of saturated fats and carries a distinct flavor and aroma that don’t suit as wide of a range of dishes as olive and neutral oils.

Why Cooking Temperature Matters for Oil

Oils can withstand high heat, which is why they’re the perfect cooking medium. However, each oil has its own tolerance for heat, also known as its smoke point. The smoke point is the highest temperature the oil can reach before it combusts and burns.

Aside from burning your dish, burning oil creates bitter flavors in food, acrid smells in your kitchen, sooty buildup over time, and loud noises (thanks, smoke detector). And that’s why it’s important to consider the cooking temperature and technique of a given dish when choosing an oil to cook with.

Here’s a breakdown

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Smoke point: 350° F
Best used for: Sweating vegetables, sautéing, or anything calling for medium-high cooking or below

Light Olive Oil

Smoke point: 450-470° F
Best used for: Searing, marinating, grilling, pan-frying, or anything calling for high heat or below

Peanut/Soybean/Corn Oil (neutral)

Smoke point: 450° F
Best used for: Deep drying, stir-frying, and high-heat cooking

Vegetable/Canola/Grapeseed Oil (neutral)

Smoke point: 400° F
Best used for: Deep frying, high-heat cooking, searing, stir-frying, shallow-frying, recipes calling for large quantities of cooking oil, or anything calling for medium-high cooking or below

Avocado Oil

Smoke point: 500-520° F
Best used for: Searing, pan-frying, sauteing, stir-frying, high-heat cooking, health-conscious cooking, recipes not calling for large quantities of cooking oil

Coconut Oil

Smoke point: 350° F
Best used for: Baking, sautéing, anything call for medium heat or below

Sources: Serious Eats, Hungry Huy, Time, WebMD

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