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From Smoke Point to Shelf Life: Everything You Need to Know About Cooking Fats

Created December 17, 2019
types of fats
Ever wonder about the variety of cooking fats that line the grocery store aisles? Wonder no more—we’ve got the skinny on fats!
You’ve probably used olive oil and butter but what about ghee or coconut oil? There are so many different types of cooking fats that it can be hard to keep track of what’s what. Not to mention, the variety of uses and unique characteristics of each type. Is it refined or unrefined? Does it have a high or low smoke point? What’s the shelf life? All this and more answered below!

Refined vs. Unrefined

Refined fats have undergone more processing than unrefined fats. Though processing will vary by fat and by manufacturer, in general, a fat that has been processed will have had more ingredients added during that process. This results in key differences in the taste, shelf-life and smoke point of refined versus unrefined cooking fats. A good example is coconut oil. Refined coconut oil is neutral in smell and taste and has a higher smoke point (up to 365°F). Virgin (unrefined) coconut oil has a coconut smell and taste and has a lower smoke point (up to 280°F).

Refined

  • Neutral Taste
  • Longer Shelf Life
  • High Smoke Life

Unrefined

  • Specific Flavor
  • Shorter Shelf Life
  • Low Smoke Point

Liquid v. Solid

Using the right form of fat can make or break a recipe. For example, when making cookies, most recipes will call for softened butter in order to follow the creaming method—this could not be replicated if a liquid fat was used.

solid vs liquid

Most oils are in liquid form. There are some exceptions, like unrefined and extra virgin coconut oil, which are solid until heated. Other solid cooking fats include butter, ghee, plant-based buttery spread, vegetable shortening and animal fats.

Flavorful vs. Neutral

There’s a difference between the type of oil you’d use to sauté with and the type of oil you use to drizzle on top of your soup, salad or pizza. Neutral oils are great for cooking, while flavored oils are excellent flavoring agents. Knowing the difference between the two, will add flair to your cooking, and help you make the most of the oils you purchase—so, save that expensive walnut oil for salad dressing.

  • Flavorful: Some oils have very distinct natural flavor, such as toasted sesame oil. Since sesame seeds are toasted prior to extraction, the oil is deep golden brown and tends to have a strong and intense nutty flavor. Toasted sesame oil should be added the last few minutes of cooking to increase the flavor of the dish— a little goes a long way! Unrefined coconut oil has a natural coconut flavor. Extra-virgin olive oil tends to have fruity aroma and a rich, nutty flavor. Peanut oil also has a nutty flavor.
  • Neutral: Neutral oils don’t have a distinct flavor and work in a lot of different dishes since they don’t impart their own flavor in the food. These include corn, canola, vegetable, grapeseed and safflower.

Smoke Point and Use

So, what’s a smoke point? It is simply the temperature at which a fat start to burn and thus starts to smoke. Different cooking fats have different smokes points, so it’s an important factor to consider when choosing an oil to cook with.

Here’s how some common types of oil are categorized:

  • High Smoke Point: Refined oils, such as almond, avocado, safflower, light olive, peanut, coconut, sesame, vegetable, canola, soybean, grapeseed, corn, palm and ghee. These tend to be more “all-purpose” and are great for high heat cooking like frying, stir-frying, sautéing or roasting. The liquid oils can also be used in vinaigrettes and dressings.
  • Medium-Low Smoke Point: Unrefined oils, such as extra-virgin olive, coconut, toasted nut (sesame, walnut, pistachio), and butter. These tend to be more delicate and are better for low-heat sautéing, baking or adding finishing drizzles of flavor or vinaigrettes and dressings.

One more note, sometimes the same type of oil is available in both refined and unrefined forms, so check the label before using (or better yet, before buying).

Storage and Expiration

example of expiration date on olive oil bottle

Oils should be stored in cool, dark place for 6 to 12 months. Storing properly, and particularly avoiding exposure to heat (keep away from your stove!) will ensure the best shelf life. More delicate oils like sesame and walnut oil are best kept in the refrigerator. A sniff test is usually a good indicator of whether an oil has gone rancid—some oils feel sticky when rancid. Avoid using any oils that may be questionable or smell “off.”

To make it easy, we created a chart with all the information you need to know about types of cooking fats. Bookmark or print this page next time you can’t decide between ghee and butter!

Cooking Oil Cheat Sheet

Type of Cooking Fat

Refined vs. Unrefined

Liquid vs. Solid

Flavor Profile

Smoke Point

When to Use It

How to Store It

Extra Virgin Olive oil

 

 

Unrefined

Liquid

Fruity, rich, nutty, dependent on the region

 

 

Low-medium

Low-heat sautéing, baking, mixing into salad dressings/sauces, garnishing a dish

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Mild Olive Oil

Refined

Liquid

Mild

High

All purpose, grilling, roasting and mixing into salad dressings/sauces

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Light Olive Oil

Refined

Liquid

Mild

High

Searing, sautéing and frying. Can be subbed for butter or vegetable oil in some baked goods.

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Vegetable oil

Refined

Liquid

Neutral

High

Frying, stir frying, sautéing, roasting, vinaigrettes, dressings and baking

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Canola oil

Refined

Liquid

Neutral

High

Frying, stir frying, sautéing, roasting, baking, mixing into salad dressings/sauces

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Peanut oil

Refined

Liquid

Nutty

High

Frying stir frying

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Grapeseed oil

Refined

Liquid

Mild to neutral

Medium-High

Shallow-pan frying, oven roasting

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Sunflower oil

Refined

Liquid

Neutral

High

Frying, marinades, grilling

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Toasted Sesame oil

Unrefined

Liquid

Intense nuttiness

Low-medium

low-heat sautéing, baking or adding mixing into salad dressings/sauces, garnishing a dish

Keep in fridge for up to a 1 year

Avocado oil

Refined

Liquid

Neutral

High

Roasting, sautéing & mixing into salad dressings/sauces

 

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Butter

Unrefined

Solid

Rich, nutty, sometimes salty

Low-medium

Low-heat sautéing or baking

Keep in fridge for 6-9 months

Ghee, clarified butter

Refined

Solid

Richer, nuttier

High

Frying and sautéing

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Vegan Butter Spread

Refined

Solid

Neutral

High

Used in place of cow’s milk butter in cooking and baking

 

Keep in fridge

Regular Coconut oil

 

Refined

 

Solid

Neutral

Medium-to High

Low-heat sautéing and baking

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Virgin Coconut Oil

Unrefined

Solid

Natural Coconut Flavor

Low

Low-heat sautéing, baking

Store in a cool, dark place for 6-12 months

Vegetable Shortening

Refined

Solid

Neutral

High

For Baking, Cooking, & Suitable for Frying

 

Keep in fridge for up to 1 year



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