A little personal background: I have to admit to a prejudice against oil. If a recipe calls for it, I almost always consider substituting butter. I have attempted to  overcome this recently. A red velvet recipe called for a cup and half of oil. Yes, seriously. I winced pouring it in. And surprisingly (to me, anyway), the cake was delicious.

While oil hasn’t taken quite as bad a beating as butter in the last couple of decades, the average person probably has the following equation in their subconscious: oil equals fat equals horrible/unhealthy/must not consume! But a great cook (or even a good one) comes to appreciate oils. They are vital to cooking…and I can’t always use butter. (In fact, an expert, “BakeWise” cookbook recommends using oil in cake!)

I suspect the hidden cause of many a failed recipe is bad ingredients. Not bad as in spoiled or expired. Bad as in low-quality or the wrong ingredient. I have to admit that when I started cooking- with my sense of thrift- I had a tendency to go for cheaper ingredients. I’ve stopped that practice. And everything tastes better. High-quality and the correct ingredients are the difference between a delicious recipe and a…well, disaster. Or at least a low-quality product. Understanding the differences between ingredients is important too…which brings us to the many types of oils.

(Note: this is part of an ongoing series of posts covering the fundamentals of baking. For more information, check out the ‘Ingredients,’ ‘Substitutes,’ ‘Cooking 101,’ and ‘Cooking 201’ pages.)

I could not believe how many types of oil there were. Most of them I haven’t run across either in cooking or in stores. Thus,  I’m going to cover the oils that are most commonly used. If cooking with a speciality oil, it’s a good idea to look up its properties: heat point, proper uses, flavor, etc.

Avocado oil -and- grape seed oil: light flavor. They have the highest smoke point of any oil, making it excellent for frying or sautéing over very high heat. However, more expensive and usually only found in speciality shops.

Canola oil: mild flavor, inexpensive. Due to higher smoke point (400 degrees) and neutral flavor, good for frying (and stir-frying) as well as baking and salad dressings. Good choice for an all-purpose oil. Lowest level of saturated fat, one of the highest levels of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Becoming more popular.

Corn oil: produced from corn kernel germ. Almost tasteless and odorless. Due to high smoke point (450 degrees), corn oil is one of the best for frying. However, tendency to foam and produce smoke makes it unsuitable for very high-temp recipes.  Often used by manufacturers to produce margarine and shortening products, as well as vegetable oil.

Flax seed oil (aka linseed oil): while previously not well-known, I’ve seen more and more recipes with flax seed oil, and people recommending it. In fact, it’s a nutritional supplement. Do NOT try to fry or sauté with this; it’s smoke point is 225 degrees. It’s better used in salad dressings or other condiments.

Nut oils (almond, argan, hazelnut, macadamia nut, walnut, etc.): each oil has its own unique taste, and is used mostly in speciality cooking. They are expensive, fairly hard to find, and must be stored properly (or they will go rancid). Smoke point varies upon type of nut. Best for cold dishes; heating can destroy the flavor.

Olive oil: beloved by many a cook and baker. I tried to find out if more vegetable oil or olive oil is consumed  in the U.S., but couldn’t. Most olive oils have a fairly strong taste; while they can be used as a substitute in many recipes, it isn’t always a good choice. Note that smoke points vary depending upon manufacturer, process used, etc.
-Extra virgin olive oil– unrefined. best flavor of all the grades, high in monounsaturated fats, flavor depends upon olives & growing conditions. Has a low smoke point (between 325 and 375 degrees), so do not use for high-temperature cooking. Acidity must be below 1% to qualify.
  -Fine virgin– unrefined. Acidity must be below 1.5%. Less expensive.
-Virgin- unrefined. Acidity must be below 2%. Less expensive and higher smoke point (approx. 420 degrees) allows for wider variety of uses.
-Semi-fine- unrefined. Acidity must be below 3.3%.
Olive oil (aka Refined olive oil) – Less expensive. Much higher smoke point (438 degrees), making it ideal for cooking.
-Extra light- very refined, less expensive, neutral taste. Smoke point approx. 468 degrees.

Peanut oil: very widely used. High smoke point (450 degrees) makes it ideal for sautéing and frying food. American version is well refined, leaving it clearer and with a milder taste.

“Regional” oils (mustard, palm, sesame seed oil, tea oil, etc.): in this case, regional refers to wide swaths of the world, such as the Middle East or India. For example, mustard oil is commonly used in Indian cooking.

Safflower oil: Very high smoke point (510 degrees) makes it excellent for sautéing, stir-frying, and frying . Used to make margarine and vegetable oil.

Soybean oil: while you probably won’t run across it in the grocery store, this oil is one of the most widely used in America. Used to make vegetable oil, margarine, and shortening.

Vegetable oil: a broad term, meaning it consists of one or more types of other oils, such as soybean, corn, safflower seed, cottonseed etc. Refining process designed to produce oil with a high smoke point (depending upon types of oil in mixture, 400 to 450 degrees). Thus vegetable oil is good for sautéing, frying, and baking. (Do NOT use as condiment, such as in salad dressings).

Speciality oils: apricot kernel oil, chile oil, coconut oil, pine seed oil, poppy seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, rice bran oil, truffle oil, wheat germ oil, etc.  (Does anyone think I could find more than 100 kinds/types of oil?)
I haven’t run across these in cooking or baking yet, thus don’t feel a long explanation is necessary. If you need any of these (or other speciality oils) in cooking, make sure you look up the important information before you use: smoking point, flavor, uses, etc.

*If you’re making something such as cookies that requires the creaming/fluffing together of the softened butter and sugar, I would NOT recommend substituting oil. The incorporation of air is vital for the proper texture of the final product. If a recipe does call for oil, make sure you use one with neutral flavor (canola, corn, safflower, etc.).

*The science behind using oil in cake in place of butter: “Oil coats flour proteins better than butter. Coating the flour proteins prevents their forming gluten, which ties up water, thus leaving more water in the batter to make a moister cake” (Corriher, S.O. (2008). BakeWise. New York, NY: Scribner). I don’t often quote sources directly, but she is a genius. Don’t substitute all of the butter for oil; try half.