What Is Vegetable Oil?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Vegetable oil

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Vegetable oil is a mild, odorless, flavorless, light-colored cooking oil that is good for cooking, frying and for making salad dressings. Any oil made from plants, whether it's derived from seeds, grains, nuts or fruits, is considered a vegetable oil. But when you see a bottle of oil labeled "vegetable oil," it's almost always soybean oil.

Fast Facts

  • Mild flavored and odorless
  • Great for frying, cooking and baking
  • Typically 100 percent soybean oil
  • High smoke point (around 450 F)

What Is Vegetable Oil?

The term vegetable oil is commonly used as a shorthand to refer to any cooking oil that is derived from plant material, as opposed to animal fats like butter and lard. Examples of vegetable oils include canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and soybean oil, as well as oils made from fruits such as olives and avocados.

However, there is a cooking oil that is simply labeled "vegetable oil," and it is almost always made from pure soybean oil, or occasionally a blend of soybean and corn oils. This is the product to which we refer in this article, the specific product consisting of all or mostly soybean oil, as opposed to the broad category of oils made from plants. 

Vegetable oil is made from soybeans. The reason it's called vegetable oil instead of soybean oil is mainly a marketing decision, though it also allows manufacturers to blend other oils, like corn oil, with the soybean oil without having to alter the labels.

Vegetable oil is a light-colored oil, made to be as flavorless and odorless as possible. It's made by crushing dried soybeans, then spinning to separate the oil from the plant matter, before distilling and refining it to remove as many impurities and other contaminants that could affect the flavor, color and aroma of the oil. So the result is an oil that's extremely neutral and thus highly versatile. It's equally good for making salad dressings and dips as it is for cooking, frying and baking.

Cooking With Vegetable Oil

One of the great advantages of vegetable oil is its relatively high smoke point, around 450 F, meaning that it's good for high-heat cooking methods such as sautéing and frying. Since most deep-frying is done at around 375 F, that means vegetable oil will stand up to typical frying temperatures without smoking or imparting a bitter, burnt flavor to the food. And because it's inexpensive, it won't break the bank to make a batch of homemade french fries. 

Because of its neutral flavor, vegetable oil won't contribute any particular flavor when using it to make salad dressings, dips, mayonnaise and the like. But you're not always looking for the flavor of the oil to predominate, so when you want a neutral oil, vegetable oil would be a good choice. It is also a great choice for baking, since you don't necessarily want to be able to taste the oil in cakes, quick breads and muffins.    

Frying in vegetable oil
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Vegetable oil
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French fries
LauriPatterson / Getty Images 

What Does It Taste Like?

Vegetable oil is made to have a very mild flavor, almost nonexistent if you use it in a recipe or for cooking or frying. If you tasted the oil itself, you might think it had a slightly sweet flavor, perhaps a bit similar to the flavor of tofu. Then again, it might not taste like anything at all.

Vegetable Oil Substitute

If a recipe calls for plain vegetable oil, it's most likely indicating that you should use any plant-based cooking oil, like canola, corn, peanut, sunflower, safflower or soybean oil. So if you can't find an oil specifically labeled "vegetable oil," or soybean oil, any of the above cooking oils will do just fine.

In general, your best substitute for vegetable oil in terms of flavor, aroma and smoke point would be any refined, high-heat vegetable oil. Oils that would be less similar include olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and nut-based oils like walnut or hazelnut oil. 

Vegetable Oil Recipes

Vegetable oil can be used in frying, sautéing, baking, and in recipes that don't use heat such as making mayonnaise and marinades. 

Where to Buy Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oil can be found alongside the other cooking oils at grocery stores, supermarkets and specialty food stores.  

Storage

Vegetable oil should be stored in a cool place, away from light and heat, and with the cap tightly closed to prevent oxidation. Assuming it's stored properly, it will stay fresh for about 6 months. With cooking oils, the issue with freshness comes down to rancidity, which is a change in flavor and aroma caused by heat, light and oxygen.

If your oil has an unpleasant smell or flavor, it's probably gone rancid and should be discarded. Note that rancid oil can't make you sick, it just tastes and smells bad which in turn will make whatever you are making taste the same.