What Is Rapeseed Oil and When Should You Use It?

If you live in the U.S. or Canada, you probably know this neutral cooking oil as "canola oil."

glass pitcher with rapeseed oil surrounded by yellow rape plants outdoors
Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

Rapeseed oil is one of the most widely used cooking oils in the United States, although most people living in the U.S. have never seen anything with the label "rapeseed." The confusion largely comes down to semantics. Here's everything you need to know about this versatile and affordable cooking oil.

What Is Rapeseed Oil?

field with yellow rape plant flowers
Getty Images/Shadya Corradini/500px

Rapeseed oil is produced from the seeds of the rape plant, a yellow flowering plant belonging to the mustard or cabbage family. There are two main types of rapeseed oil: industrial and culinary. Industrial rapeseed oil is mostly used in chemical and automotive industries, and is high in erucic acid, a compound that may be dangerous to humans when consumed in large amounts. In the United States and Canada, culinary rapeseed oil is known as "canola oil."

Rapeseed Oil vs. Canola Oil

One of the most widely consumed oils in the United States, canola oil is actually derived from rapeseed cultivars. In 1976, Canadian scientists used traditional cross-breeding to create a new cultivar that was low in both glucosinolates and erucic acid. Prior to this, rapeseed oil was not used for human consumption due to its potentially dangerous levels of erucic acid.

The new and improved oil was named canola oil, a combination of — "Canada" and "oil" — in honor of its largest producer. By definition, canola oil must have less than 2 percent erucic acid and less than 30 micromoles of glucosinolates (a natural component that can give the oil a bitter taste).

Outside of the U.S. and Canada, many countries use the name "rapeseed oil" interchangeably to refer to both culinary and industrial rapeseed oil.

What Is Rapeseed Oil Used For?

High-Heat Cooking

An oil's smoke point refers to the temperature at which it will begin smoking and creating harmful compounds, resulting in a burnt, acrid flavor. If you've ever turned your back on a pan full of oil over high heat, then you might be familiar with the billowing smoke and scorched smell of oil that's been heated past its smoke point.

In general, refined oils (like rapeseed/canola) tend to have a higher smoke point, meaning they can be used for more high-heat cooking methods like deep-frying, stir-frying, or pan-searing. Rapeseed oil has a smoke point of 400 degrees F. A general rule of thumb is the lighter the oil = the more refined = the higher the smoke point.

Versatility

Rapeseed/canola oil is what's known as a neutral oil, meaning it won't impact the flavor of your dish. Neutral oils are usually refined oils that have undergone extra processing such as bleaching and deodorizing, resulting in a more neutral taste. Unrefined oils, such as extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil, tend to taste closer to the plant they are derived from.

Neutral oils are great for baking, deep frying, or any time you don't want to distract from the flavors of the dish.

Rapeseed Oil Substitutes

When substituting for rapeseed/canola oil, your best bet is going to be another neutral oil with a relatively high smoke point. These include safflower oil, light/refined olive oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, vegetable oil, and grapeseed oil. Of course, if you don't need a neutral oil for your dish, extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil can be suitable substitutes.

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