These days, our market shelves groan with more and more choices of vegetable oils—each shouting its own health claim. How do we know which are best for cooking? It helps to understand that “vegetable oil” is a broad term for a category of oils pressed from the seeds, nuts, grains, or fruits of plants. With the exception of specialty oils (such as toasted sesame or nut oils), vegetable oils are refined and filtered to create clear, relatively neutral-tasting oils to be used for cooking, frying, and baking. When choosing an oil for dressings, marinades, and baking, the only real criteria are taste and health preferences. For sautéing and frying, however, you’ll do best using an oil with a high smoke point. When a recipe simply calls for vegetable oil, you don’t need to rush out and buy a bottle labeled “vegetable oil”; rather, you can use any of the oils from the following list, keeping in mind the slight flavor differences.
Corn oil: This dark yellow oil has long been the most common vegetable oil in the United States, simply because it’s so abundant. Many chefs like its mild, almost buttery flavor for mayonnaise and baking (think cornbread). It’s a favorite for pan-frying because of the distinct roasty flavor it lends to foods.
Canola oil: Processed from the rapeseed plant, a seed plant related to mustard, this light, mild-tasting oil has gained popularity because it’s rated second only to olive oil in the amount of monounsaturated fat.
Peanut oil: Not to be confused with unrefined peanut oil, which carries the full flavor of peanuts, most grocery-store peanut oil is mild and light. Its primary use is dressings, dipping sauces, and frying. Be aware that people with severe peanut allergies may not be able to eat foods cooked with peanut oil.
Soybean oil: This neutral, stable workhorse oil is found mainly under the generic vegetable oil label. It has little flavor and is intended for all uses—although some chefs complain of an off taste when heated too high.
Safflower oil: This light, almost tasteless oil is a good all-purpose oil for instances when you simply want the properties of the oil without any pronounced flavor.
Sunflower oil: A pale, bland-tasting oil very similar to safflower oil but somewhat less widely available.
Vegetable oil: Examine the labels on these popular, all-purpose oils and you’ll find an ingredient list that tells you exactly what it contains. Buy only those brands that list pure oil (any oil labeled “pure” will contain only oil and no flavorings or stabilizers). Typically, generic vegetable oils are soybean oil or some type of blend. Most have a very high smoke point, making them good for frying.
Oils high in monounsaturated fat: Canola, peanut.
Oils high in polyunsaturated fat: Corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean.
Best oils for serious frying: Peanut, corn, safflower.