When I started down this path of learning to cook ten years ago, I used extra virgin olive oil any time I needed a cooking oil. I’ve learned a thing or two since then (and I’m still learning).
The oil I use today depends upon the application:
By ‘high-heat cooking’ I’m referring to sautéing most meats, chicken, and fish. For this application you want an oil with a very high smoke point. Olive oil (non-extra virgin) has a smoke point around 375F which is much too low. I use safflower oil, which has a smoke point around 450F. Safflower oil is also one of the healthiest oils you can consume.
Canola oil is also excellent. There is a lot of controversy around canola oil but these days most of it falls into the category of “I read it on the internet so it must be true.” Modern canola oil is very healthy and is also inexpensive.
For medium-heat cooking such as sautéing or sweating vegetables, I use almost any high quality non-extra virgin olive oil. Using extra-virgin olive oil in this application is a waste of money because the heat cooks out the extra-virgin olive oil’s extra ‘goodness’
I prepare many recipes in which you drizzle olive oil over them at the end, after cooking and just prior to serving. Oil used in dressings and vinaigrette also falls into this category. This is when I reach for the extra-virgin olive oil.
Notes About Specific Oils
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is the oil extracted from olives during their first pressing, and is considered the highest quality olive oil.
After the first pressing, the olives are pressed additional times to extract additional oil from them. For cooking over low and medium heat, olive oil is a great choice.
Pomace Olive Oil
After the olives have been pressed multiple times and all the usable oil has been extracted by the normal methods, as solvent (in this case benzine) is used to extract additional oil from the olive pulp. Olive oil produced this way cannot be called ‘Olive Oil’ because the International Olive Council defines olive oil as “the oil obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree, to the exclusion of oils obtained using solvents or re-esterification processes.
Forty years ago, Canola oil was considered a nasty low-grade oil. Today canola oil is high in quality and very healthy. It has a high smoke point, around 400F. It is perfectly suited for high-heat cooking (The culinary school I am attending used canola oil exclusively). If I needed larger quantities of high-heat cooking oil I would use canola instead of safflower.
Peanut oil is a great oil for deep frying and high-heat cooking due to it’s high smoke point (around 450F). It also is relatively neutral in flavor. The only reason I do not use peanut oil is that I occasionally serve dinner guests with peanut allergies.
Grapeseed oil has a high smoke point (about 420F). Due to its clean, light taste, and high polyunsaturated fat content, it may be used as an ingredient in salad dressings and mayonnaise and as a base for oil infusions of garlic, rosemary, or other herbs or spices.
Another name for canola oil