Updated: Apr 26, 2019
Over the years, I found that what is available in grocery stores has grown exponentially. “Specialty items,” like virgin coconut oil, for example, that would otherwise require you to make a special trek over to the health food store in the next town, is now probably available at the Giant down the block. Everyday it seems like a new, and otherwise extravagant, ingredient from a little-known region is newly proclaimed the new “superfood.” And then Bon Appetit features it in a recipe video, and Munchies soon releases a How-to video devoted to the ingredient. Then big name blogs craft recipes around and it, before you know it, the cycle ends at Whole Foods where it’s featured during a ‘Prime-only’ sale.
I think that grocery stores responding to trends and, in turn, increasing the variety in their standard stock of items is great. However, this now trend-like cycle of new items being added to the shelves constantly is overwhelming to the novice cook or that individual who is just starting to get comfortable in their own kitchen. Personally, I have found the oil section to be the most overwhelming. There are so many different types of oils available (Flaxseed oil...What the hell is that?) and each one often has 2-3 different brands. As Sanim Nosrat, famed culinary author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat says “your food can only be as delicious as the fat that it was cooked in.” In other words, oil is the starting point of any meal and arguably one of the primary components of cooking. To ease my own anxiety about whether or not I’m choosing the right oil, I ended up compiling a list of common cooking oils and basic information on each of them. I’ve shared it here in hopes of equipping you with the knowledge necessary to understand which oils to use and which oils to avoid.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
This oil seems to be the most widely used and well-known in the kitchen - and with good reason! Olive oil is known to be incredibly healthy as it contains a variety of antioxidants. While this oil has a robust flavor, be careful how you use it because it contains a relatively low smoking point, meaning it should only be used for low heat applications. It degrades rather quickly in light, so make sure to keep it in a dark place, like your pantry. When purchasing olive oil, look for darkly colored glass or ceramic bottles. Additionally, Extra Virgin Olive Oil goes bad more quickly than you would think, as it stays fresh for about a month before it begins to taste rancid. If you’re shopping in the States, look for olive oils made in California as they will often be more fresh since they don’t have to be imported. As an added bonus, more ‘local’ olive oils tend to be a cheaper, and produce higher quality oil.
When it comes to cooking, olive oil will take your meal to the next level in both flavor and nutrition, but, again, you need to take some precautions when heating it up. If you’re going above 375 degrees Fahrenheit, use the oil quickly and be sure to store it in a dark place after use.
Favorite Brands: Kirkland Signature Organic Olive Oil, or the bulk section at your local health food store (if available)
There are two major types of coconut oil: Virgin and Refined
Virgin Coconut Oil is the cure all elixir for alternative health and wellness bloggers. People use it on and for anything, from baking to “oil-pulling” and even putting it in their hair and on their skin as a moisturizer. It has a strong coconut flavor and is great for ‘veganizing’ desserts as a substitute it for butter in a 1:1 ratio. Since this oil is minimally processed it contains numerous health benefits. Like olive oil, it also has a relatively low smoking point so avoid heating it above 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Refined Coconut Oil can handle higher heat and has a neutral flavor, but since it is more processed, it doesn’t have as many health benefits as virgin coconut oil.
If you are going to get a coconut oil, buy an oil that is labeled “virgin” “cold pressed” and “raw” so you can also get all of the benefits that nearly all influencers rave about.
Favorite Brands: Kirkland Signature Virgin Cold Pressed Raw Coconut Oil
Peanut oil is derived from peanuts and is a staple in Asian cuisine. This oil is mostly neutral with a very slight peanut flavor. This is a favorite for those who deep fry foods because of its high smoking point. Depending on where you live and the markets available to you, there are a variety of peanut oils you may have access to:
Refined Expeller Pressed Peanut Oil
Cold Pressed Peanut oil
Gourmet Peanut Oil
Peanut Oil Blends
In general, the first three oils in the list are totally fine and are arguably a healthy addition to your diet, but you should otherwise avoid peanut oil blends. This oil isn’t even ‘just’ peanut oil as it is a mix of peanut and a variety of other oils to generate a cheaper product. Keep in mind that peanuts, in general, are a heavily processed food item and tend to contain GMOs.
It’s unfortunate to see how wary some people (especially those who identify as ‘health gurus’) avoid this oil like the plague. While you need to be particularly wary when purchasing this oil (as to why that is, explained below), it’s a reliably neutral cooking oil that can lead a double life in your cooking and baking. Look for “cold-pressed” or “expeller-pressed” and “non-GMO” on the labels when looking to buy canola oil.
Canola oil, generally, was once considered to be a very healthy oil, but like all things good in the US, deep pockets changed that perception. The oil-making process was in need of ‘expedition’ to maximize profits and, as a result, the nutritional value degraded dramatically… we don’t name names, but the same people that make your average grocery store canola oil are also responsible for Agent Orange and DDT. Not surprisingly, most conventional canola oil is toxic and it is essential that you make sure you are buying oil that is non-GMO and specifically says “expeller pressed” on the label. If you buy oil that does not have those two labels and use it regularly, it’s a near-guarantee that you are slowly poisoning yourself. We love you here at Peachly, please don’t die.
Grape Seed Oil
This neutral-tasting oil was introduced to the market by wine manufacturers who used left over grape seeds to make an oil. This oil, like peanut oil, is also often used for deep-frying due to its neutral flavor, high-burning point, and it’s relatively cheap price. As of yet, there is not a lot of research on the health benefits or potential risks of using this oil on a regular basis. Most grape seed oil is solvent-extracted, meaning that the seeds are treated with hexane to extract more oil, and then the oil is heated to remove the majority of the hexane to make it safe for human consumption. Personally, the idea of my food being treated with solvents is a big turn off for me and I would prefer to avoid it. If you do decide to buy this oil, please, do yourself a favor and make sure it says “cold-pressed” or “expeller-pressed” and not “solvent-pressed.”
I am going to keep this section short and sweet. Avoid this oil, as it is often a blend of soybean and corn oil, which are the most heavily processed and most widely cultivated GMO crops in American Agriculture. Vegetable oil can be toxic for you and has no place in your pantry.
This neutral-tasting oil has the highest burning point of almost all oils available on the market: a remarkable 520 degrees Fahrenheit. This oil is high in Oleic Acid, which is a very healthy fat. Like many other oils mentioned here, remember to avoid any avocado oil that does not have “cold-pressed” on the label as at that point all the health benefits are gone and you should instead just buy a cheaper oil.
Personally, I keep Canola oil, Avocado oil, Virgin Coconut oil, Peanut oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil in my pantry at all times. I cook a ton and have a multitude of reasons for having each one of them taking up room in the small kitchen of my very cramped, one-bedroom apartment. I suggest that all novice cooks start with a bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil for dressing or light sautéing and to use cold-pressed Avocado Oil for everything else. This will get you through just about anything and since avocado oil is neutral in flavor, you can use it as a substitution for canola, peanut, vegetable, and even grape seed oil.