Oils are extracted from all different kinds of seeds, nuts, and plants, and to be honest, choosing one can be a bit overwhelming. What oils should you have in your pantry — ones you'll actually reach for on a regular basis when cooking? Here are the four categories of cooking oils we use the most, and the best ways to use them!
1. Olive Oil
What to use it for: Sautéing, cooking over moderate heat, salad dressings
Olive oil is valued for its great flavor and is definitely one you always want to have in your pantry. It has a low smoke point, meaning it will burn at a lower temperature, so olive oil is best used over moderate heat.
Olive oils can range all over the place in terms of quality and price. I like to keep a good extra-virgin olive oil on hand for uncooked things like salad dressings or drizzling over cooked food, but I also keep a cheaper olive oil on hand to use when I know I'll be cooking it with a lot of other ingredients and the flavor won't shine through as much.
2. High-Heat, Neutral-Tasting Oil
What to use it for: Roasting, high-heat cooking, wok cooking, deep-frying, baking, dishes where you want a very neutral-flavored oil so you don't really taste it
Popular varieties: Canola, safflower, sunflower, corn, grapeseed, peanut oil, rapeseed
Recipes can call for vegetable oil, which can be a very confusing term, as technically, even olive oil can be considered a vegetable oil since it comes from a plant. What it really refers to, however, are oils that have a higher smoke point and fairly neutral flavor, making them popular for high-heat cooking and for dishes where you don't really want to distinctly taste the oil. Their clean flavors also make them popular choices for deep-frying and baking.
Most vegetable oils are inexpensive and great for everyday cooking, although there are a few, like grapeseed, that come with a higher price tag.
3. Coconut Oil
What to use it for: Roasting, popping popcorn, granola, sautéing, curries, baking, dishes where you don't mind having a nutty flavor
Coconut oil is oil extracted from the meat of coconuts, and unlike a lot of other cooking oils, is solid at room temperature. It has a low smoking point, so you should avoid using coconut oil over high heat. We love the subtle, sweet, coconut-y flavor it adds to food and the fact that it's used in a lot of vegan baking recipes to replace animal fats.
What to use it for: Salad dressings, drizzling it on dishes that are uncooked or won't be cooked further
Popular varieties: Toasted sesame seed, herb-infused, citrus, garlic, nut
These finishing oils may be extracted from very flavorful ingredients or may come from infusing oils with other flavors. Because they are very strongly flavored on their own, you want to preserve that flavor by not cooking with them, since heat will dull their flavors. Instead finishing oils can be whisked into salad dressings or tossed onto foods right before serving so you can really taste their unique flavors.
Finishing oils usually cost more than other oils, and while they're not totally essential for everyday cooking, having one or two around is an easy way to add a unique layer of flavor to a dish. A little toasted sesame oil on a stir-fry or some walnut oil in a salad is delicious!