Vegetable oil and canola oil are not sexy. They’re both incredibly cheap, tastes like nothing, and come in big, plastic bottles. Unlike an expensive glass bottle of olive oil or an idyllically-labelled, tiny canister of pistachio oil, neither vegetable nor canola is something you leave out on the counter for guests to gaze upon.
But even though they’re not sexy, they are oh so useful. Their lack of flavour isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. It’s the oil you reach for when you want your food to taste like itself. Both true neutrals on the alignment chart, they won’t steal focus by flavoring (or burning) your meal. Think about it: Would you rather your perfectly seared steak taste like meat, or bitter, overheated olive oil?
The differences between canola oil and vegetable oil
Though nearly identical in terms of functionality, there are a few differences between the two oils. Canola oil is extracted from the rapeseed plant, and has a smoke point of 400℉ (200 Celsius). Most vegetable oil (about 85%) is extracted from soybeans, though corn oil, palm oil, and canola oil are often in the mix. Vegetable oil also has a smoke point of around 400℉ (200C), though it can vary slightly depending on the blend. Both are virtually tasteless — dip a piece of bread in each and see if you can taste the difference between the two.
Unlike more flavorful, expensive oils — which are usually mechanically extracted — vegetable and canola oils are often extracted chemically, usually using hexane as a solvent. The hexane dissolves the oil, the plant solids are filtered out, and the oil-hexane mixture is heated to drive off the hexane. Volatile flavour compounds also evaporate with the solvent, leaving behind nothing but flavourless oil. It’s a cheap, efficient process that results in a cheap, efficient oil.
Both can also be “expeller pressed,” a process that uses friction and pressure to mechanically extract the oil, rather than solvents. (I have never been worried about hexane in my oil, mainly because I have done a fair amount of chemical extractions in various labs and know that only trace, minuscule amounts of solvent are left behind, if any.) Some manufacturers claim expeller pressing results in an oil with a different, more “natural flavour,” but a taste test from America’s Test Kitchen didn’t find that to be true.
How should you use vegetable oil?
If you want an oil that contributes fat, not flavour, either one of these oils will work beautifully. They’re both great for frying, searing, and sautéing, but I’m also a fan of using them in vinaigrettes, especially if I want the acid to shine extra brightly. If you want a little character from olive oil or some such, but not too much, you can always cut the more flavorful with canola or vegetable oil to reel it in a bit.
What about all those other fancy “neutral” oils?
Peanut oil, corn oil, and rice bran oil are popular amongst many food writer types, and for good reason. All three have a very high smoke point of 450℉, but they’re not as neutral-tasting as canola or vegetable oil, and — with the exception of corn oil — they are usually more expensive.
Refined peanut oil tastes vaguely of peanuts, corn oil has a pleasant, almost buttery flavour, and rice bran is slightly nutty. Unless you’re extremely averse to any of those flavours — or allergic to peanuts — all three can be used in place of vegetable or canola oil, especially in high-heat applications like frying. Grape seed oil is another true neutral with a high smoke point but, again, it’s more expensive than either canola or vegetable oil.
I could spend all day listing oils and their various smoke points and flavour profiles but, like most things, your choice of oil comes down to personal preference. I like my fries cooked in peanut oil or duck fat every once in a while, but there’s something pure and iconic about a fry that tastes of nothing more than crisp, salty potato. Peppery or fruity olive oil is fantastic drizzled on raw or roasted vegetables, but less effective as a roasting fat, especially if you want the focus to be roasted vegetables.
Vegetable and canola oil let you access these pure, unadulterated flavour profiles, and they let you do it cheaply. In addition to being cheap themselves, having one or the other on hand means you can save your more expensive, flavorful oils for those moments when they’ll really be appreciated. Allow yourself to use these cheap oils, is what I’m saying. Speaking as something of a cheap thing myself, sometimes a cheap thing is just the thing you need.