Cooking Oils 101: Part 1

Clive Champion - Champion Photography Ltd / Getty Images

This is the first post on a series about plant-derived cooking oils here on About.com's Produce Channel. We'll be looking at numerous types of cooking oil in depth: how they're made, their uses, their health benefits and risks, and other particular information sensitive to the oil in question.

First, we'll be doing a two part breakdown of the numerous oils available on the market, their primary cooking uses, and their smoke points. 

Just a decade ago it seemed like the only kind of oil available to the home cook was either vegetable oil or olive oil? Today it seems there's no end to your options. Sesame, peanut, coconut, red palm, avocado... the list goes on!

But what differentiates each oil from the others? There's numerous factors to consider.

The smoke point is one major consideration. The more refined an oil is the fewer impurities and the higher heat the oil can withstand before it begins to smoke, lose nutritional value, go bitter in flavor, and eventually catch fire if heated further.

Another consideration is the flavor of the oil. Some oils contain a rather neutral taste such as vegetable oil, while others such as sesame oil remain punchy and strong in flavor.

Lastly, there is fat content, which we won't go into much here. Oils are fats and possess a blend of  mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated fats. Some of these are healthy fats and others less so.

If you're using oil, you're using fat. That's a good thing as fat helps create texture and blend flavors.

The important thing to realize is moderation. Only use just as much as you need, which in most cases, be it stir-fry or salad dressing, is only a few tablespoons at most. (Deep-frying, naturally, is a unique situation and the unhealthiest option.)

Below is a list of plant-based cooking oils. Click on the names of each oil for more information as we continue the series.

Almond Oil: Low in cholesterol, this oil has a surprisingly high smoke point at around 420F. The light almond flavor gives it use in salads and dressings, but the smoke point makes it a good option for cooking. This oil has one of the lowest levels of cholesterol.

Avocado Oil: Pressed from the fruit of an avocado, this vibrant green oil has the highest smoke point at 520F, making it perfect for searing and stir-fry. The avocado flavor fades with cooking making it an excellent, though pricey, option.

Canola Oil:Also known as rapeseed or vegetable oil. Canola is actually related to cabbage, hence the name vegetable oil. Its light color and flavor make it an optimal oil for nearly all uses. A smoke point of 400F makes it a great all-purpose cooking oil as well as baking oil for cakes and brownies. High in omega-3 fatty acid and linolenic acid, it is considered by some to be a heart-healthy option.

Coconut Oil: One of the big things about coconut oil is the flavor. It is coconutty in flavor. Really coconutty. The flavor will persist before and after cooking, so keep this aside for more Asian food preparations.

This oil usually remains solid when stored, though turns to a liquid around the slightest whisper of heat. Pressed from coconut flesh it is high in vitamin K and vitamin A. A low smoke point just around 350F means it's good for confectionery purposes and quick sears.

Corn Oil: With a smoke point of 450F, this oil is perfect for frybreads, pancakes, searing, frying, grilling, and stir-frying. This oil is pressed from corn kernels and possesses a light, yellow color. The flavor is rather neutral with hints of corn that dissipate quickly.

Cottonseed Oil: An oil that used to be popular, but less so today. It has a neutral flavor and a smoke point of 420F. It's best used for simple cooking, as a shortening substitute, frying, or for baking. A big bonus? It's extremely high in vitamin E.

Flaxseed Oil: The most granola, hippie oil of the bunch.

With a smoke point of just over 200F, it's useless for cooking. The nutty, wheat-y flavor of flaxseed oil is best used to finish salads or cooked meats. This oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids and potassium.

Grapeseed Oil: Made popular by Food Network television during the late 90s when every culinary doyenne was singing its praises. Pressed from grape seeds, this oil is usually a byproduct of the wine industry. It has a very low smoke point, but possesses a rich, fruity flavor. It's a fantastic option for marinades and dressings. High in vitamin A.

Read Part 2 Here.