How to Choose the Best Oil for Cooking Fish

The right oil can enhance the flavors of your fish dish

Frying fish
Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

When you want to saute, fry, broil, or even marinate a fish or a piece of seafood, which fat or oil do you use? If you're using the same oil for almost every recipe, now is a good time to break that habit. You'll find that selecting certain oils for different cooking techniques will not only elevate the food's flavor but also dramatically alter the way the fish cooks.

Oils for Sauteeing Fish

Sauteed fish is fantastic and one of the most popular ways to prepare almost any fish.

Sauteeing involves pouring a little oil into a hot pan and quickly cook the fish over high heat. Cooking in a wok is very similar, but the key with either pan is to use just a little oil and very high heat.

That high heat will ruin many oils. Most notable is olive oil, which is very popular but also has a low smoke point. You never want your oil to smoke because once that happens it will turn acrid. It is far better to use an oil with a high smoke point when cooking at very high temperatures. If you want the taste of olive oil, drizzle it on the fish at the end.

The top choice for oils over high heat is grapeseed oil, but it can be expensive. As a cheaper alternative, choose canola oil. If you want to go through the process of clarifying butter (removing the solids), you can saute with that as well. If you're determined to use olive oil for sauteeing, make sure it is extra light olive oil (not extra-virgin).

Oils for Frying Fish

When you decide to fry your fish, go ahead and use olive oil, but skip the extra-virgin variety. It is too expensive and you are going to need a lot of oil when frying.

To clarify, we're defining frying as cooking in enough oil so half of the fish is covered in oil as it cooks. The best choices for this are regular olive oil for Mediterranean recipes, vegetable oil for American dishes, and peanut oil for Asian food.

If you prefer, you can also use lard or butter when frying.

When deep-frying or completely submerging the fish or seafood in oil, use the same thing as you would in a regular fry. Canola oil is a good choice because it has a neutral flavor and is inexpensive, which is perfect for such high-volume use.

Oils for Grilling, Broiling, and Baking Fish

Grilling, broiling or baking often require that you coat the fish in oil before cooking it. This helps conduct the heat from the burners through the fish. In this scenario, extra-virgin olive oil is a great option because it has a nice, clean taste and is one of the healthier oils available. However, you could use almost any oil you have in the kitchen.

Oils for Fish Marinades

When it comes to marinade, extra-virgin olive oil is perfect because it will remain a liquid in the fridge. The marinade will also permeate the fish, so the healthier the oil, the better it is for you. Vegetable oil is another good option and marinades can make good use of any specialty oils you have in stock.

Specialty oils do have a limited place in fish and seafood cooking, but they're nice to use for certain recipes. For instance, you could use walnut oil in French dishes or sesame oil in Asian and Mexican recipes.

They're most often used to add flavor and can be mixed in with the main oil as you start cooking. At the end, lightly drizzle the oil over the food for extra flavor.

Essential Tips for Fish Oils

As you can see, you have a lot of options when it comes to choosing a good cooking oil for fish. There are a few more things you want to keep in mind though.

First of all, don't use flavored oils for cooking. In the best case scenario, the oil's flavor will disappear while you're cooking. However, there's a very good chance that it will actually turn rancid and ruin the dish. Save these oils for a light drizzle once the fish is off the heat and ready to be served.

Also, remember that less refined oils also have a lower the smoke point. Never use unrefined oils for sauteeing or other high heat preparations over 350 F.

Some oils like canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, and peanut can be either refined or unrefined, so it's important to read the labels.