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A Guide to Cooking Oils

Sesame Orange Greens with Potstickers

For eons, humans have been flavoring their foods with spices, herbs and aromatics, as well as a variety of fats and oils. Our ancestors spent countless hours squeezing and pressing olives, coconuts, almonds and walnuts, all for the rich, delicious oils they contain. After all, what would Mediterranean food be without gorgeous golden olive oil? What would the finest Indian cuisine really taste like without the rich buttery flavor of ghee? Spinach Salad with Warm Parmigiano Reggiano Dressing highlights the flavor of genuine extra-virgin olive oil, and this beautiful Chicken Curry spotlights the flavor of ghee paired with ginger, chiles and spices.

Although it’s easy to splash some vegetable oil into a skillet for a sauté or a stir-fry, if you really want to make a difference in the flavor of your meal, get familiar with the best uses for a variety of cooking oils. As a general rule, unrefined oils have a stronger flavor and are best used uncooked or for low-heat cooking. Keep this in mind when choosing the oil you want to use.

  • Extra-virgin olive oil is ideal in spreads, sauces, pesto and dressings that don’t require cooking. You can, however, use it on low to medium heat, but be aware it has a low flashpoint and will burn very quickly. Drizzle over fresh crusty bread or this Onion Focaccia, or a salad of cheese and tomatoes. Consider using your best and most flavorful extra-virgin olive oils for drizzling over dishes to finish, and milder everyday ones for cooking.
  • Coconut oil has become very popular in recent years. Organic virgin is best, but if you don’t care for a strong coconut flavor, flavorless and odorless organic refined coconut oil will do just fine. Use coconut oil for sautéing vegetables, baking, and using in Asian recipes. Use unrefined coconut oil for low to medium heat and refined coconut oil for medium-high-heat cooking. Coconut Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Coconut Crumb Cake are made with coconut oil.

Coconut Roasted Sweet Potatoes

  • Ghee is made from simmering butter and separating the milk solids from the pure butter oil. It’s unsurpassed in flavor and because it is virtually milk-free, it’s stable (similar to coconut oil) at room temperature and can be used at high temperatures. It is absolutely wonderful for sautéing, baking and more. Golden, rich ghee is best known in Indian cuisine but is equally revered in parts of Egypt, Africa, Morocco and Fiji. Bangladesh pastries called Kusli Cakes and Swiss Chard Stuffed with Goat Cheese and Rice are made with ghee.
  • Walnut and pumpkin seed oils are two of my favorites for salad dressings, spreads, dips and drizzling. You may find roasted varieties, which are delicious for dipping and making salad dressing. For a treat, spoon a bit over hummus or add to pesto along with olive oil. Use these oils in raw dishes only. Endive, Pear and Walnut Salad is a must-have cool-weather salad made with roasted walnut oil and Bosc pears. Substitute a couple of tablespoons of pumpkin seed oil for olive oil in this Pumpkin Seed Pesto recipe.

Endive, Pear and Walnut Salad

  • Peanut oil is available either unrefined or refined. The unrefined version gives a wonderful “peanutty” flavor to foods like stir-fries, marinades and sauces. Unrefined peanut oil is fine for low to medium-heat cooking but refined peanut oil really stands up well to high heat. Peanut oil along with cayenne pepper, onions, carrots and eggplant helps flavor this Senegalese Rice and Fish recipe.
  • Sesame oil is amazing in Asian foods. You can purchase unrefined, refined, toasted or hot-pepper sesame oil. Try the toasted oil drizzled over hot sticky rice and the unrefined in an Asian-style stir-fry with broccoli or bok choy. Unrefined sesame oil is fine for low to medium-heat cooking. Refined sesame oil is great for high heat cooking. Taste toasted sesame oil in Sesame Orange Greens with Potstickers and hot-pepper sesame oil in our Spicy Noodle Salad.
  • Canola oil is from the rapeseed, which is part of the mustard family. Similar to high-heat sunflower and safflower oils, it’s ideal for dishes where you don’t want to taste the oil. They’re good for raw and cooked foods, baking, stir-frying, frying and sautéing. If you have questions or concerns about canola oil, check out this blog post on Canola Oil at Whole Foods Market.

What are your favorite cooking oils to keep on hand? Let me know in the comment section below.