The Right Oil for the Right Recipe
Posted by , MS, RD, LD, FADA

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Earlier this year, my husband took a class at a cooking school in the Twin Cities which has a great reputation. Since that time, he has insisted on using olive oil, and only olive oil, whenever he cooks. I have tried countless times to help him understand that different oils work best in varying applications, but as many dietitian colleagues have experienced, families members don’t always appreciate our advice. The focus of today’s blog is to help readers — and my husband — understand oil choices.

We often talk about the nutrition benefits of different oils, but heating temperature and flavor also are important considerations when choosing oils for cooking, baking and other food preparations. The smoke point — the temperature at which the oil breaks down — is a key factor in deciding which oils to use. Those with a higher smoke point are better suited to frying, pan frying and sautéing. All smoke points are approximations as the oil breakdown happens gradually as the temperature rises. Less refined oils have a lower smoke point than more refined choices, so consider this when making purchase and use decisions. As to flavor, choose oils with a neutral flavor, such as canola oil, for recipes where you want the flavor of the ingredients to shine through. When you want to enhance the flavor of a recipe consider oils with a more pronounced flavor.

Combining flavor needs and smoke point with nutritional attributes is ideal when choosing oils. This chart highlights this information for key oils in the marketplace today.

Oil Type Smoke Point (in oF) Overall Properties Use In Not Recommended For Nutrition Properties
Extra virgin olive oil


Strong flavor makes it ideal for applications where flavor is desired. Marinades, dips, dressings, sautéing Frying, baking High in monounsaturated fat, higher in saturated fat than other oils.
Coconut oil


Natural sweet flavor impacts recommended usages. Baking, frostings, some sautéing Deep frying, dressings High in saturated fat.
Canola oil


Neutral flavor makes it ideal as an all-purpose oil. Cooking, baking, sautéing, grilling, dressings Drizzling High in monounsaturated fats and omega-3s, lowest in saturated fat.
Sesame oil


Very distinct sweet, nutty flavor, popular in Asian cooking. Deep frying (light sesame oil) and stir frying and sauces (dark sesame oil) Baking Contains mono- and poly-unsaturated fats.
Peanut oil


Popular in Asian cooking for flavor and high smoke point. Pan and deep frying, stir frying, roasting, grilling Baking High in monounsaturated fats, higher in saturated fat than other oils.
Sunflower & safflower oil


Neutral flavor and color. Frying, sautéing, salad dressing, baking Drizzling, low heat cooking High in polyunsaturated fats.
Corn oil


Primary oil used in fast food restaurants. Deep frying, sautéing, stir frying Drizzling, low heat cooking High in polyunsaturated fats.
Soybean oil


Common in processed foods. Unstable so often processed, which creates trans fats. Processed foods, margarine, salad dressings Drizzling Higher in polyunsaturated fats, higher in saturated than other oils.

While there are many oil options available in today’s supermarkets, in reality you only need to keep two or three in your pantry. Recently, I checked in with Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, former senior director of programs and culinary nutrition at the Culinary Institute of American and current president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, regarding which oils she keeps in her kitchen. “The two mainstays in my kitchen are canola oil – which is a great all-purpose oil I use in many recipes and meals — and extra virgin olive oil, which I use for flavor – drizzling on roasted vegetables or in salad dressings.” Amy also has walnut oil on hand, which she adds to banana bread for a flavor infusion.Consider the information above, your health needs and the recipes and food choices you make most often to decide which oils are best suited for your kitchen. Personally, I like Amy’s advice and plan to pass it on to my husband. Hopefully, he’ll listen to her! For more information on selecting the right cooking oil, check out my colleague Jane Dummer’s, RD, blog post.