Amy Campbell, CDE, is a registered dietitian and the author of several books about diabetes, including 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet and Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning.

Does anyone cook with butter or margarine these days? Most likely, you’ve been using oil for sautéing or even frying. But have you walked down the oil aisle of the grocery store lately? Where did all of those different choices even come from? The old standbys are there—soybean oil, canola oil, and olive oil. But other oils are vying for space on the store shelves too, including sesame oil, grapeseed oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, and pumpkin seed oil. Not to mention coconut oil, which has had its fair share of publicity lately. Which one is best, or does it really matter?

Oils 101

With the exception of coconut oil, what all oils have in common is that they mostly consist of unsaturated types of fat. In case you need a refresher, unsaturated fat is considered to be the “healthy” or better type of fat to use. There are two types of unsaturated fats:

Polyunsaturated fatty acids: Found mostly in plant-based foods and fatty fish, these fatty acids may help to decrease the risk of heart disease and possibly type 2 diabetes.
Monounsaturated fatty acids: Found in a variety of foods and oils (including olive oil), these fatty acids can improve blood cholesterol levels and lower the risk of heart disease. They may also help improve insulin and blood sugar levels.

All unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature, whereas saturated fats are solid at room temperature (think butter, lard, and coconut oil).

Something to keep in mind: all types of fat contain a mixture of both unsaturated and saturated fatty acids. So butter, which has mostly saturated fat, does contain some unsaturated fat as well. The same goes for vegetable oils. Even olive oil, primarily a monounsaturated fat, has a bit of saturated fat in it too.

Best oils for cooking

There are a couple of considerations to keep in mind as you peruse the oil shelves and decide what to buy:

Smoke point: Simply put, the smoke point of an oil or fat is the temperature at which it starts to smoke. If you’re going to be frying or stir-frying, you want to use an oil with a high smoke point. Most fried foods are cooked at a temperature between 350 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit, so choose an oil that has a smoke point above 400 degrees. In general, the lighter the color oil, the higher its smoke point.
High smoke point oils include canola, safflower, sesame, peanut, and avocado.

Flavor: In some instances, you may want the flavor of the oil to come through in your cooked dish. For example, sesame oil has a distinct flavor that lends itself well to Asian dishes. Olive oil is prized for its flavor as well. But other foods may best be cooked with a less flavorful oil, such as canola oil or safflower oil.

For frying, stir-frying, searing, roasting, or grilling:
Choose canola (go for organic if possible), safflower, grapeseed, peanut, or sesame oil. You can even use coconut oil, but make sure to choose “virgin,” or unrefined coconut oil. These oils can stand up to the high heat because of their high smoke point. Remember that sesame oil has a very distinct flavor. If you want an oil that’s subtler, go for canola or safflower oil.

For sautéing: Sautéing doesn’t require very high temperatures, which means that in addition to using oils that have a high smoke point, you can also use olive oil, which doesn’t. Extra virgin olive oil will lend a more distinct flavor than refined or light olive oil, but any type will work.

For sauces: As with sautéing, you have options. Most any type of oil will work in a sauce. But you may want the oil to lend some flavor. For example, a spaghetti sauce gets some extra oomph if you use extra virgin olive oil. If you prefer other flavors to come through in your sauce, use a milder olive oil or canola oil.

For dips and dressings: Okay, you probably aren’t cooking a dip or a salad dressing, but you might be using oil to make them. Extra virgin olive oil works perfectly, whereas milder oils, such as canola or safflower oil, don’t contribute much flavor. You could also consider this a chance to go outside the box and try some specialty oils, such as avocado, pumpkin, and walnut.

Oils not suited for cooking

Some oils just aren’t made for cooking. They don’t stand up to heat in the least. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them in the kitchen! Here’s what to try:

Hemp oil: This delicate oil has a slightly nutty flavor and is a rich source of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. Try it in dips or salad dressings or use it for dipping bread.

Flaxseed oil: Also rich in alpha-linolenic acid, flaxseed oil has a very mild flavor, making it suitable for drizzling on steamed veggies, in salad dressings, and even in smoothies or oatmeal. Keep flaxseed oil in the fridge in a dark bottle.

Pumpkin seed oil: Sometimes taken as a supplement to promote prostate and heart health, pumpkin seed oil is delicious drizzled over roasted or raw vegetables, pasta, or cheese. Also, try dipping a crusty, whole-grain bread in pumpkin seed oil.

There’s almost always more than one oil that’s a great choice for a particular recipe. Have fun trying different ones out for yourself!

Which cooking oils do you like best? Comment below to name your favorites.