As a child, I used to love combing through my grandmother’s handwritten recipe cards. The dinners were separated into three categories: Butter, Bacon or (Vegetable) Oil – her three go-to cooking fats. I think of her often nowadays when I’m at the grocery store, staring down the seemingly endless selection of cooking oils available. Refined, organic, virgin, high heat…where to begin?
It’s important to keep in mind that there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to cooking oil. Fat content, smoke point (the amount of heat it can take without burning) and flavor intensity are all important factors to consider.
First, some basic terminology:
Unrefined: Unrefined oils are minimally filtered. They have more pronounced flavors, colors and aromas than refined oils, and may appear cloudy or have visible sediment. Unrefined oils are best for uncooked or low heat preparations.
Refined: Naturally refined oils are more thoroughly filtered, removing more particles and resins. Refined oils have a longer shelf life than unrefined, and can stand up to higher temperatures.
High Heat: As the name suggests, these oils have higher smoke points, making them the ideal choice for high temperature preparations like pan-searing and frying.
Virgin and Extra Virgin: When it comes to olive oil, virgin means mechanically pressed (aka cold-pressed). Extra Virgin is the highest quality, making it ideal for dressings and other raw preparations. For coconut oil, virgin is made from fresh coconut meat, milk or milk residue, while refined (non-virgin) coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat.
Still confused? Check out our handy cheat sheet on all things oil.
Almond Oil – Refined almond oil has a very mild flavor and can withstand moderate to medium-high temperatures, like sautéing. Unrefined almond oil is best used as a finishing oil. Both can be used for skin care and massage. Smoke point: 420˚F
Canola Oil – Extracted from canola, a cousin to cabbage, this oil is among the most flavor-neutral, making it ideal for both sweet and savory baking. It also has a high smoke point, so an oil like Spectrum Naturals® Organic Refined Canola Oil is versatile enough to use when searing, sautéing, or frying. Smoke point: 400˚F
Coconut Oil – Virgin or unrefined coconut oil is semi-solid at room temperature and has a distinct coconut flavor and aroma. Like most unrefined oils, it has a low smoke point and should be used for low to medium-heat preparations. Spectrum Naturals® Organic Refined coconut oil can take more heat, like sautéing and pan-frying, and is also good for baking. Both are great for skin and hair care; use Spectrum Essentials® Unrefined Coconut Oil for Hair & Body as a body moisturizer or deep hair conditioning treatment. Smoke point: 350˚F
Grapeseed Oil – This oil is extracted from the seeds of grapes discarded during the winemaking process. With virtually no taste and an extremely high smoke point, Spectrum Naturals® Refined Grapeseed oil is the ideal choice for cooking delicate flavors at high temperatures. Smoke point: 420˚F
Olive Oil – This Mediterranean staple is a go-to for sautéing, baking, and pan-frying. Spectrum Naturals® Organic Olive Oil has a lower smoke point than vegetable oil, so it’s not ideal for high heat preparations. Fruity, aromatic extra virgin olive oil is ideal for dips and dressings or drizzled as a finishing touch over grilled and roasted fish, meat, and veggies. Smoke point: Extra virgin 325˚-375˚FRefined 465˚F
Peanut Oil – With a high smoke point and distinctive flavor, Spectrum Naturals® High Heat Refined Peanut Oil is a great choice for frying and other high heat preparations. Unrefined peanut oil, best for low to moderate heat cooking, has a stronger nutty taste and aroma. Smoke point: 450˚F
Safflower and Sunflower Oils – Though extracted from two distinct plant varieties, safflower and sunflower oils cover much of the same ground in the kitchen. Both are light in color and flavor, and both stand up well to high heat. Both make a great choice for sautéing, frying, and baking. Smoke point: Safflower 510˚F Sunflower 440˚F
Sesame Oil – Extracted from sesame seeds, this oil gives food a pronounced sesame flavor and aroma. Ideal for low to moderate heat preparations, Spectrum Naturals® Organic Unrefined Sesame oil is a great choice for Asian-inspired dishes. Toasted sesame oil is even stronger in flavor, making it a great choice for dipping sauces or drizzling over meat and veggies. Smoke point: 350-410˚F