The Best Cooking Oils and How to Use Each of Them

Get to know the flavors of nine different oils, then put them to work in the kitchen.

Photo: Yasu + Junko

Not long ago, you could find olive, canola, and maybe safflower oil at the grocery store. These days, cooking oils often take up an entire aisle. Once-exotic varieties, like coconut and walnut oils, line the shelves of most markets. How do you navigate your way around all these bottles? First, you should pay attention to function and select an oil appropriate for the cooking you're doing, whether you're pan-frying or finishing raw vegetables. Then consider flavor: Neutral oils let a dish's ingredients shine, while stronger oils add flavor.

Here's the skinny on some of the test kitchen's favorite cooking oils. You can decide their best applications based on cooking temperature (smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to break down and smoke) and flavor.

oils in small round dishes
Bryan Gardner

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Smoke Point: 325 degrees (medium heat)

Flavor: Depending on the origin, it can range from fruity and buttery to grassy and spicy.

Suggested Use: While a high-quality finishing oil is the best choice for salad dressings and dipping bread, a less expensive oil is fine for sauteing or baking-and don't sleep on olive oil-fried eggs or olive-oil mashed potatoes!

Safflower Oil

Smoke Point: 510 degrees (high heat)

Flavor: Mild-tasting with a neutral aroma; made from the seeds of the safflower plant, which is related to the sunflower.

Suggested Use: Perfect when you don't want a pronounced flavor from the oil in a recipe (think stir-fries, curries, and baked goods). The high smoke point also makes it ideal for sauteing and deep-frying.

Grapeseed Oil

Smoke Point: 425 degrees (medium-high heat)

Flavor: Very neutral, clean flavor; extracted from the seeds of grapes, a byproduct of winemaking.

Suggested Use: Nice everyday oil; works well for baking and high-heat sauteing. Lets ingredients in pasta sauces, soups, and salad dressings shine.

Toasted Sesame Oil

Smoke Point: 350 degrees (medium heat)

Flavor: Intensely nutty taste and aroma; a little goes a long way.

Suggested Use: Wonderful in salad dressings and marinades; it is often used in combination with vegetable oil for stir-frying or sauteing.

Virgin Coconut Oil

Smoke Point: 325 degrees (medium heat)

Flavor: Pressed from the raw fruit, unrefined virgin coconut oil is creamy and buttery, with a distinct coconut flavor.

Suggested Use: Add a spoonful to oatmeal; great for baking (try it in banana bread or muffins) but also nice melted and used for light sauteing.

Walnut Oil

Smoke Point: 325 degrees (medium heat)

Flavor: Savory, with a slight walnut taste and delicate, roasted tones.

Suggested Use: Good for drizzling over cooked vegetables and salads; nice oil to finish summer soups like gazpacho.

Peanut Oil

Smoke Point: 450 degrees (high heat)

Flavor: Derived from one of America's favorite snack foods, peanut oil's rich flavor is suitable for everyday use.

Suggested Use: Often the deep-fry oil of choice due to its ability to handle high heat, peanut oil works equally well in stir-fries.

Virgin Avocado Oil

Smoke Point: 400 degrees (medium-high heat)

Flavor: Delicate avocado taste.

Suggested Use: Excellent for high-heat sauteing and in dressing and dips. Emerald-green color makes it a pretty finishing oil for grilled vegetables.

Roasted Pumpkin-Seed Oil

Smoke Point: 250 degrees (low heat)

Flavor: Smoky, earthy flavor.

Suggested Use: Best as a finishing oil for meats and vegetables; the distinctive dark-brown oil also works well in salad dressings and is excellent over grilled corn on the cob or asparagus.

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