Vegetable oil is a product, yes, but it’s also a category. Grapeseed, avocado, safflower, peanut, and coconut oils are all considered vegetable oils. A bottle of vegetable oil, then, is a proprietor’s blend (of mostly soybean oil); it's typically flavorless, scentless, colorless, and with a decently high smoke point for high-heat cooking. (As a reminder: “smoke point” refers to the temperature at which oil starts to burn and emit smoke.)
If vegetable oil’s purpose is simply to conduct heat quickly and efficiently, without imparting much flavor in the process, why reach for a more expensive variety? As author of The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils Lisa Howard told TIME Magazine, cheap “vegetable oil is guaranteed to be highly processed."
"It’s called ‘vegetable’ so that the manufacturers can substitute whatever commodity oil they want—soy, corn, cottonseed, canola—without having to print a new label," Howard explains. In lieu of cold-pressing, oil-rich ingredients are combined with solvents and “pushed past their heat tolerance”—killing off all nutrients—and the oils that result “have become rancid in the processing,” writes Howard. To add insult to injury, the production of many of these untraceable oils has been linked with land degradation.
Picking a single-ingredient oil instead means knowing exactly what you’re getting. Here are six of the best substitutes for vegetable oil, for a variety of applications—from searing to sautéing, frying to finishing, broiling to baking.
1. Extra-Virgin Olive
Odds are, extra-virgin olive oil is already a stalwart member of your pantry. But its pros are no less worth reiterating: It’s full of good-for-you fats, it’s unrefined (that’s what “extra-virgin” means—who knew!), and best of all, it’s versatile and (b)utterly delicious. Olive oil’s smoke point (350°F) is the lowest on this list, so put it toward lower-heat (poaching, searing, sautéing) or no-heat methods (like salads).
Not to be confused with Mazola (a blend of corn and canola), canola oil is extracted from the canola seed—a type of rapeseed (related to turnip, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage) specially bred for oil production. Its smoke point is 400°F, which makes it a sensible option for at-home frying projects (sweet potato fries, anyone?).
3. Filtered Coconut
Coconut oil is made from dried and mashed coconut flesh, or boiled coconut milk. If your recipe won’t mind a hit of coconutty flavor—nor does it require the application of extraordinarily high heat—go for virgin (unrefined) coconut oil, whose smoke point is 350°F (perfectly fine in granolas or dairy-free cookies). Filtered or refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400°F—great for frying base aromatics.
Grapeseed oil is made from, you guessed it: winemaking by-product, grape seeds. It is flavorless and can be heated up to 420°F before smoking. Use when roasting vegetables, making infused oils (I’ll use a whole bottle to make, then store homemade chile crisp), or bulking up an aioli.
Safflower oil is extracted from seeds of the prickly safflower (petals of which are used as an imitation for saffron). Because of its very neutral flavor, it’s often used (along with sunflower oil) in salad dressings and mayonnaise. Refined safflower oil’s smoke point is on the higher end—510°F—which makes it a suitable choice for deep-frying and broiling.
Like coconut oil, avocado oil is one of the few oils extracted from fruit flesh, not seed. Even unrefined, avocado oil’s smoke point is higher than that of olive, canola, and grapeseed—clocking in at 480°F—or 520°F if you’re using refined. As with safflower oil, avocado oil is a great choice for extremely high-heat cooking methods, like grilling, shallow-, and deep-frying.