A Quick Guide to Oils

Growing up, oils were simple in our house.  That’s because there weren’t oils.  There was just oil.  It was probably canola oil, or vegetable oil (which ever was on sale or Mom had a coupon for).  Oh, and there was Crisco.  A bottle of oil and a tub of Crisco, that was it. 

When I moved out on my own and had to cook for myself, I used Crisco and canola oil, because that’s what I was used to.  When I started focusing on my health, I switched to olive oil, because that’s what the hype was about.

Rows of Oils!

Go into almost any grocery store now and you’ll find shelves of oils.  Canola, vegetable, and olive have been joined by avocado, sunflower, peanut, sesame, and a host of others.  You don’t even need to go to the grocery any more because oils have their own stores now!  And they aren’t just oils, it’s infused and flavored oils. 

On my counter right now, there are five different oils, and there’s at least two more in the pantry.  So many oils, how to choose which to use!  What’s the difference? 

Deep Frying in Oil

Consider two things when choosing your oil: how you’re using it, and what influence it should have on your dish.  First, different oils are better for certain uses than others.  Extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point (the point where the oil breaks down and becomes a cloud of smoke that stinks up your kitchen and sets your smoke alarms off), which makes it a poor choice for frying.  Compare that to corn oil, which is great for deep frying, but it’s lack of nutrients and antioxidants (and taste) make it a poor choice for much of anything else. 

Here’s a little guide to help you decide what type of oil to use:

Smoke Point



Low (Low to no heat)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Flaxseed, Canola/Rapeseed

Dressings, drizzles, marinades, light sautéing

Medium (low heat)

Sesame, Coconut

Sautéing, baking, dressing

High (high heat)

Avocado, Peanut, Corn, Olive Oil

Deep frying, sautéing, baking, stir-frying, grilling


You may also want to consider how the flavors will affect your dish.  Dishes from around the world are influenced by the oils and fats that have traditionally been available in that region.  For example, sesame oil is found frequently in Asian cuisine, while coconut if found in more tropic climate regions like the Caribbean and Thailand.  Olive oil seems to be everywhere.  The book Salt Fat Acid Heat has an oil wheel that breaks down oils by region (I can’t post it, but thanks to Google you can see it here). 

So now that you know all about oils, which ones are going in your cart next time you go grocery shopping?

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