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How to Choose a Cooking Fat or Oil for Every Recipe

A woman choosing cooking oil at the supermarketSimpleFoto /Depositphotos

If you’re not using the right fats and oils for your recipes, you’re missing out.

Edible fats and cooking oils, which, along with waxes, belong to a group of compounds called lipids, have many uses in the kitchen.

As an ingredient in dressings, they make salads heartier and help the body to assimilate the fat-soluble nutrients in the fruit and vegetables.

Heated in a pan or pot for frying, they promote even cooking and carry the aroma and flavor compounds from the ingredients in our dish to the taste buds on our tongues.

A generous glug of oil cooking on a stainless steel skillet prevents delicate foods, like eggs and fish fillets, from sticking unsalvageably to the bottom and sides. Greased with it, your grill’s grates will release thick-cut steaks, pork chops, and sausages nearly effortlessly.

Not all edible fats and oils are made equal—you can’t always use them interchangeably. Some are suitable for cooking over high heat. Others will start to give off toxic smoke and impart your food with bitterness as soon as they come into contact with the hot frying surface of your skillet.

To prepare delicious and wholesome food for your family, you need to master the art and craft of choosing the right fat or oil for the recipe (and the cooking method) at hand. Which, coincidentally or not, is what this article is all about.

How to Distinguish Between Fats and Oils

Fats and oils are rendered from fatty cuts of meat or obtained from grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. They can be distinguished easily from one another thanks to the fact that fats are solid at room temperature, whereas oils are liquid.

Some fats, such as beef tallow, lard, and chicken or duck fat, are melted from red meat and poultry. Others, like butter, are churned from milk or cream. Then, there are fats from vegetable sources and hydrogenated vegetable oils such as cocoa butter, palm oil, margarine, and vegetable shortening.

Oils can come from fruits and vegetables (i.e., avocado oil and olive oil), nuts (i.e., almond oil or walnut oil), seeds (i.e., flaxseed oil and grapeseed oil), grains (i.e., rice bran oil and sunflower oil).

Such oils are most commonly listed in recipes and can be found in any self-respecting grocery store.

The Difference Between Saturated Fats and Unsaturated Fats

Fats and oils’ texture is determined by their building blocks, which can be divided into two categories: saturated fats and unsaturated fats.

  • Saturated fats are solid and stable at room temperature. They have a long shelf life, but they are considered to be relatively bad for you;
  • Unsaturated fats are liquid and unstable at room temperature. They turn rancid quicker, but are considered to be generally good for you.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), a non-profit organization that funds cardiovascular research, consuming too much saturated fat can increase the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

As explained by Cleveland Clinic, unsaturated fats actually help to improve cholesterol, reduce inflammation in the body, and decrease the overall risk of heart disease.

As a golden rule, oils from nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are high in unsaturated fats. At the grocery store, these are the best oils to go for. They include avocado oil, canola oil, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil, rice bran oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil, to name a few.

In contrast, butter, beef tallow, lard, and chicken or duck fat are high in saturated fats—and so are coconut butter, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil (not to be confused with palm oil). Alas, they are also the most aromatic and flavorful of all; do your best to use them sparsely.

Why the Smoke Point of the Fats and Oils in Your Pantry Matters

Fats and oils are not necessarily interchangeable, and every cook should learn to choose the right one for the cooking method and recipe at hand.

All fats and oils have a smoke point, the temperature at which they stop to ripple and shimmer and start to break down and burn.

The smoke point determines the maximum temperature a fat or oil can withstand without breaking down in the heat of cooking. If it is heated beyond its smoke point, the fat or oil will begin to give off a bluish stream of toxic smoke—and harmful, acrid-tasting compounds will form in your dish.

For cooking methods that require intense heat, such as searing thick cuts of meat to give them a golden-brown crust, sautéing thin cuts of meat and sliced vegetables to cook them through, and broiling to simulate grilling in an oven, use a cooking oil with a relatively higher smoke point.

For cooking methods that require moderate heat, such as pan-frying over medium heat in 1-2 tablespoons of oil, shallow-frying by semi-submerging your food in oil, and deep-frying by fully submerging it, you can use an oil or fat with a relatively lower smoke point for added flavor.

Avocado oil, canola oil, clarified butter, corn oil, rice bran oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil are all edible oils with a high smoke point. In contrast, extra virgin olive oil, unclarified butter, beef tallow, lard, and duck fat are all fats with a low smoke point.

If you can see a bluish haze and smell acrid, bitter, and unpleasantly pungent aromas from your food while it is cooking, remove the pan or pot from the heat and turn it down one notch to quickly adjust the cooking temperature.

Reading the Labels on Fats and Oils at the Grocery Store

The fats and oils on grocery store shelves can be refined, which means they were extracted from the source using high heat and/or chemical solvents, or unrefined, which means they were extracted at minimal temperature and without solvents.

Unrefined and refined oils often come from the same batch of fruits, seeds, or grains:

  • Unrefined oils have a shorter shelf life and mild to strong flavor similar to that of their source;
  • Refined oils have a longer shelf life and a neutral to barely perceptible flavor.

For example, extra virgin olive oil is an unrefined oil. It’s the juice that flows from ripened olive fruit, typically on the day of harvest.

The olives get ground into a paste and the oil gets extracted from it using solely mechanical means, such as pressing the paste in a hydraulic press or spinning it in a centrifuge.

The residue from the production of extra virgin olive oil is subsequently used to produce pomace oil, a refined oil. Because the oil is more difficult to extract, producers must use chemical solvents to extract the oil. Then, they heat the residue at high heat to evaporate the solvents.

Due to the chemical and heat processing, refined oils generally lack the nutrients, aromas, and flavors of unrefined oils. However, they are also cheaper, have a higher smoke point, and boast a longer shelf life—which is why many cooks keep a bottle or two of both in their pantry.

An edible fat or cooking oil can be filtered, resulting in a clear solid or liquid with a longer shelf life, or unfiltered, retaining the food particles from the extraction process for a product that lasts less, but is perceived as many by more natural.

Let’s continue with our olive oil example. Extra virgin olive oil can be filtered or unfiltered.

Filtered extra virgin olive oil is see-through and watery because it has been strained from the tiny remnants of olives left over from the production process. Unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, on the other hand, is chunky and viscous because it still contains bits and pieces of olives in it.

The problem with unfiltered oils in general is that the food particles they contain ferment quickly, which significantly shortens the shelf life of the oil and causes it to go rancid in a very short time.

When in doubt, buy your cooking oils unrefined, filtered, and fresh. They should be tinned or in dark glass bottles that protect the oil from sunlight. Reach for the bottles at the back of the shelves, especially if the sun is particularly pervasive in that area of the store.

Although frugal bloggers will probably disagree with me on this point, it is better to buy oils and fats in smaller quantities so that you can use them up long before they start to go rancid.

The Right Fat or Oil for Every Recipe

For dressing salads and baking focaccia bread, pizza pies, and piadine, opt for extra virgin olive oil with the most recent harvest date or furthest best-by date. Our favorites are California Olive Ranch and Frankies 457.

For pastries, cakes, and cookies, butter, vegetable shortening, and, in some cases, animal fats are preferred. The saturated fats that they are made out of will solidify at room temperature, adding decadence and flakiness to the dough.

For roasting meats, pan-frying steaks, chops, burgers, and sausages, and sautéing mushrooms, opt for unrefined avocado oil (grassy taste) or rice bran oil (caramelly taste). Our pantry staples are Avohass Kenya and Heavenly Chef.

For mayonnaise, use a vegetable oil with a neutral flavor such as avocado oil, grapeseed oil, or flaxseed oil. For Hollandaise sauce, use unclarified, unsalted butter (colloquially called “regular butter”).


Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.

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