Sunflower oil is a cooking oil with a long history on the North American continent and in Eastern Europe. Vegetable oil is a more recent invention that started as a substitute for lard. Both are often used for the same kinds of applications but have some major differences that you should keep in mind. Here is a look at their differences and similarities in this edition of SPICEography Showdown:
How does sunflower oil differ from vegetable oil?
Sunflower oil comes from a single source: the seeds of the sunflower plant. In comparison, vegetable oil comes from numerous sources. It is a blend of oils and can contain any of a range of plant-based oils. In most cases, most of the oil will be canola or soybean oil but it can contain corn or safflower oils.
Sunflower oil differs from vegetable oil in terms of its potential to cause harm. Sunflower oil has a high smoke point, which means that it won’t start burning (and smoking) before it gets to a high temperature. For most cooking oils, the smoke point is important since that is the point at which the oil starts producing toxic compounds that can harm you.
Sunflower is different since it can produce poisonous chemicals whether it is smoking or not. Sunflower oil begins to produce aldehydes when heated to relatively low temperatures (about 180 degrees Celsius or 356 degrees Fahrenheit), which makes it unsuitable for most forms of cooking. To be safe, you should reserve sunflower oil for raw preparations.
Vegetable oil can contain sunflower oil but it will usually consist mostly of canola or soybean oil, neither of which generates aldehydes at low temperatures.
Sunflower oil does contain omega-3 fatty acids just like the two main oils used for most vegetable oil blends; however, both canola oil and soybean oil contain much more of it per serving than sunflower oil.
Sunflower oil is a source of vitamin K like most cooking oils but it contains a relatively low amount of it. The canola oil and soybean oil that make up the greater part of most vegetable oil blends are both excellent sources of vitamin K.
Is sunflower oil a good substitute for vegetable oil and vice versa?
The most common kind of sunflower oil that is found on grocery store shelves will be highly refined. The refinement process removes virtually all the sunflower flavor and aroma leaving a neutral-tasting oil. Vegetable oil is refined in a similar way that leaves it almost flavorless.
Because they are refined, the two oils are almost indistinguishable from each other in terms of how they smell and taste. As a result, you can use sunflower oil as a substitute for vegetable oil in any raw preparation but you may not want to cook with it because of the aldehydes it can produce when heated.
Use vegetable oil as a sunflower oil substitute in both raw and cooked preparations since it can withstand high temperatures and does not generate aldehydes at relatively low temperatures.
When should you use sunflower oil and when should you use vegetable oil?
Use sunflower oil for its health benefits and whenever you need a neutral oil in raw applications. It is great as the oil component in mayonnaise and other kinds of salad dressings.
Vegetable oil is far more versatile oil and is great for stir-fried dishes as well as for deep-frying. You can use it in recipes for cakes, breads, and other baked goods.