Vegetable oil is a staple in almost every kitchen, but there are so many alternatives that are more flavorsome and complex. Its main advantage is its high smoke point, so if you're using oil for frying, choose a substitute that shares that quality.
Vegetable oils aren't the best in salad dressings since they taste neutral, even bland Instead, use cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil mixed with vinegar or freshly squeezed citrus juice for a light, fruity dressing; the standard ratio is three parts oil to one part acid. For Asian-inspired salads, sesame, walnut or flaxseed oil adds a nutty, smoky flavor. In a clean, crisp carrot-ginger dressing, olive or sesame oil provides a light, unobtrusive base that complements the grated ingredients' natural flavors.
Since many sauté recipes start with aromatics or browning of meats, choosing the right oil sets the tone. Sautéing involves a short stint over high heat, and some nut or seed oils like flaxseed have too low a smoke point. The best substitutes are peanut oil and avocado oil. Butter also adds richness to onions, garlic and other aromatics, since it foams rather than shimmers, but be sure to stir it consistently to keep it from burning.
Deep frying at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for getting a crisp, crunchy exterior while the interior of the meat or vegetables steams. Higher temperatures rule out some olive oils such as EVOO, but pure olive oil is an option. For the most intense flavor, melted shortening or lard bring out the best in potatoes and meat but would overwhelm the subtle sweetness of shrimp or fish; peanut oil would be more appropriate for seafood.
Olive oil adds a delightful fruity note to baked breads or cakes and has less saturated fat than butter or shortening. Try olive oil with Italian biscotti or Mediterranean fruit cakes, or to give a nutty finish to savory loaves. Don't use it for delicate cakes and cookies, as its flavor would be too bold.
For cookies, shortbreads and biscuits, shortening or lard provides a direct replacement for vegetable oil, enhancing the flavor and withstanding high baking temperatures. Just watch out for the overall salt content.
Borrowing a trick from vegan cooks who avoid butter, you can also bake with fruit juice or compote instead of vegetable oil for a soft, moist texture. A cup of applesauce or cranberry juice binds the bread or cake mix.