Which Cooking Oil Should You Use?

Person pouring oil into a frying pan on the stove

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Almost every recipe starts with a splash of oil or a knob of butter in a pan, and you probably have a collection of slightly greasy, oil-filled bottles somewhere on a kitchen shelf. But not all of these cooking oils are made equal. Some are better for certain culinary tasks and have different environmental and even ethical impacts than others. Learn the differences and you’ll never look at cooking oils the same way again.

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Olive Oil

Olive oil in bowl

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There was a time when olive oil stayed within the Mediterranean region where three-quarters of the world’s olives are grown, but it has become one of the most popular oils in the United States, where 80 million gallons are consumed annually. The unfortunate result is that soil erosion has become a seriously problem because traditional agricultural practices cannot keep up with demand. Olive oil is monounsaturated, liquid at room temperature and starting to turn solid when chilled. It has high levels of antioxidants, which you can taste in its peppery flavor. Olive oil comes in different ranges of refinement. Extra-virgin is the most highly prized, with a deep green color and rich taste. Lighter olive oils (anything that’s not extra-virgin) are not nearly as healthy, since they’ve been “heavily refined into nothingness.” Most sources say that lighter olive oil are better for frying because they have a higher smoke point, but some say extra-virgin is more stable due to high polyphenolic content and is therefore perfectly good for frying.

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Coconut Oil

Spoonful of coconut oil resting on top of an open jar

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Coconut oil has become the newest darling of the North American oil market. Solid at room temperature and liquid when heated, coconut oil is an easy vegan substitute for butter. It adds a wonderful and subtle coconut flavor to food. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, which has long been maligned by health experts but is now being accepted as not deadly, perhaps even healthy. Saturated fats are not the nutritional enemy so much as excessive amounts of sugar and other refined carbohydrates. The BMJ even says that “lowering our intake of saturated fat has paradoxically increased our cardiovascular risks” (Huffington Post). Coconut oil, as with all saturated fats, keep you full longer, which means that a small amount goes a long way. There are environmental impacts to consider, however, since the rapid increase in coconut oil demand has taken a toll on producers in Asia. Unfortunately Fair Trade USA says that coconut farmers in the Philippines continue to live in poverty, despite the high cost of coconut products in the United States. Consumers should purchase only fair-trade coconut oil to ensure their purchase does not exploit the grower.

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Vegetable Oil

Bottles of vegetable oil on a store shelf

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Vegetable oil consists of oils such as safflower, sunflower, and soybean. These used to be staples in North American kitchens, together with animal fats, until olive oil arrived on the scenes in the 1980s. They have high smoke points, making them easy to cook with, and are produced in the United States and Canada. There is a downside to vegetable oils. They have very little taste and little to no nutritional value. They contain high amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and the extraction process uses a range of industrial chemicals and highly toxic solvents, including hexane gas. These are oils that many people say were never meant for human consumption, as they were only invented within the last century. If buying vegetable oil, opt for organic whenever possible. According to Rodale’s Organic Life:

“Almost all soybean oil, unfortunately, comes from GMO crops, which stunt genetic diversity and require increased pesticide use. On the other hand, according to the National Sunflower Association, sunflower seeds are all GMO-free due to fear of cross-pollination with the wild population and the strict ban on GMOs in Europe, one of the word’s top producers. As for safflower oil, while currently non-GMO, new field tests of GMO safflower crops began in 2015.”
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Palm Oil

Oil palm fruits with a small bowl of cooking oil

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Palm oil in a nutshell: Avoid whenever possible! Palm oil is the reason for vast environmental destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s primary palm oil producers. Rainforests are burned and razed to make room for lucrative palm oil plantations, which destroys habitat for animals such as the orangutan, generates huge amounts of air-polluting smoke, and results in peat-bog fires that cannot be extinguished for decades. Since palm oil is an incredibly versatile saturated fat that appears in nearly 50 percent of the items in the supermarket, from food to hygiene products, there are efforts to make its production more sustainable through tighter regulations and seals of approval. While these efforts are good, relatively few producers have chosen to become ‘sustainable,’ which means that the effects are not widely felt. Palm oil is similar to coconut oil in that it’s semi-solid at room temperature and makes a good vegan alternative to butter; it’s basically a form of vegetable shortening, good for frying, too.

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Canola Oil

Bowl of canola oil with source flowers

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Canola oil comes from Canada, where it was invented in the years following World War 2. Its name means “Canadian Oil, Low Acid.” It is similar to vegetable oil in its mild taste, high smoke point, and low levels of saturated fat, which results in many of the same concerns. Rodale’s Organic Life reports: “Sadly, 96 percent of canola produced in Canada is GMO, and the number is similar for the United States. That said, organic is available, and it’s definitely worth the higher price tag.”

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Lard in a wooden bowl

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Animal fat used to a kitchen staple, before the hydrogenation process was invented for domestically grown vegetable oils and exotic oils were imported from faraway places. Lard is rendered pork fat. The process of rendering slowly cooks down the fatty layer on the meat until it turns to liquid, then it solidifies at room temperature to an even, smooth consistency that can be used for cooking. The once-maligned lard is making a comeback as a growing number of people opt for saturated fats that require minimal processing and come from locally raised sources, although many vegans and vegetarians take obvious issue with lard. If you do try rendering your own lard (which is very easy), you should try to buy the pork fat from a reputable, organic-fed and free-range source in order to have higher quality fat with which to cook.

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Hunk of half-sliced butter on a counter

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The butter vs. margarine debate has once again flipped in favor of butter, the age-old standby of every kitchen. It is considered a ‘real’ fat, not one that is created by an industrial process with added chemicals, which makes it appealing to the growing number of people wanting to eat a more natural, minimally processed diet. Butter is full of saturated fat (with only 65% saturated compared to coconut oil’s 90%), and it only takes a bit of butter to make a big difference in flavor and calories. There are obvious implications for vegans when it comes to butter, since it’s an animal product. If you do eat it, it’s worth considering the source of the butter you buy and trying to get the highest quality, preferably butter made from grass-fed cows.