ultimate guide to choose the right cooking oils

The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Oils


An average supermarket stocks a wide variety of cooking oils these days and if you go to a specialist deli there are many less-known varieties that you can buy.

Picking the best cooking oil for every purpose can be confusing even for an experienced cook. Until you read our mega guide…

Our goal with this article is to provide you with all the information you need to pick the right oil, every time. To make this easier, we have divided this guide into 4 sections.

The first part covers each cooking oil individually, useful for when you have questions about a specific oil..

The second part covers smoking points, an all-important metric to consider when choosing an oil for high-heat cooking.

In the third part we look at the recommended oils for each popular cooking methods from adding them to dressings to stir-frying.

 Finally, the fourth part dissects cooking oils based on their composition of healthy and saturated fats.


The Healthiest Cooking Oils

Let’s clear up some details before we dig into the list here. You will find various list of “healthy” and “unhealthy” cooking oils online, often featuring the same oils, creating more confusion that clarity in the matter.

Which oil is the healthiest will vary, depending on what you use it for.

Some “experts” will tell you to avoid all processed oils. They may be right in a head-to-head comparison, as a cold pressed, virgin oil will retain more healthy components than a refined version.

You will want to drizzle your salad with an oil that has high mineral content and healthy fat components such as omega 3s and monounsaturated fatty acids.

If, however, you want to fry with that oil, the processed version will often have a much higher smoke point, making it the healthier choice for that purpose.

Why is that? Because if you heat an oil past its smoke point it starts to break down and produce free radicals which are very bad for your health.

Always consider the cooking method when you are trying to choose a healthy oil option.

healthy avocada oil for cooking

Avocado Oil

It’s not an accident that avocados are a staple in healthy diets, avocado oil is also one of the healthiest cooking oil choices. Not only does it have the highest smoke point of all oils it is also unrefined, with a high monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat content and Vitamin E. It has a neutral flavor profile, so it probably is the single best oil for high-temperature cooking methods. The only downside is the higher price tag.

Best for

● Frying

● Salads

Not recommended for

Budget cooking

healthy extra-virgin olive oil for cooking

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Made from freshly pressed olives, it has a distinctive flavor that can range from grassy to fruity, depending on the origin. While it is full of healthy fatty acids, it has a relatively low smoke point at 375°F (190°C), making it less suitable for cooking.

Best for

● Light sauteing

● Drizzling over salads

Not recommended for

Frying and cooking above 375°F

healthy virgin olive oil for cooking

Light (also called “Pure” or “Regular”) Olive Oil

Made from the same olives as extra virgin olive oil but refined and processed before it hits the market. During this process it loses some of the heart-healthy fats and the distinctive flavor of the freshly pressed oil. In return, it has a higher smoke point which makes it better suited for medium and high-temperature cooking.

Best for

● Sautéing

● Roasting

● Stir-frying

Not recommended for

-

healthy flaxseed oil for cooking

Flaxseed Oil

This is a prime example of a healthy oil for salad dressings and dips. It has a super high omega 3 content, which is the good fat with many health benefits. On the flipside, it oxidizes easily and has a low smoke point, making it unsuitable for cooking with heat. Buy it in small bottles and use it quickly.

Best for

● Salads

● Dips

Not recommended for

Cooking

Vegetable Oil

These oils are usually a blend of plant-based oils such as corn, sunflower, soybean, canola, safflower, rapeseed etc. While we would not really call them healthy, they are made for one specific purpose: to provide a stable oil with a neutral flavor for high-heat cooking at a good price point. Healthier options for frying often cost a lot more. They are highly processed so we would not use them for salads and sauces.

Best for

● Frying

● Roasting

● Baking

Not recommended for

Salads

Dressings

Dips

healthy peanut cooking oil

Peanut Oil

Peanut oil has a pale color, a strong nutty flavor and a distinctive scent. You need to store it carefully as it can go rancid fast. It has a high smoke point and a low saturated fat content. When the flavor profile is right, it can be a great choice for stir-fries. It is a highly processed oil so we would not use it for salad dressings and dips.

Best for

● Stir-frying

● Sautéing

Not recommended for

Dishes with delicate flavor

Salads

healthy walnut oil for cooking

Walnut Oil

Walnut oil is a very versatile specialty oil with a rich nutty flavor. It is low in saturated fats and has a good omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Due to its low smoke point its not suitable for cooking but it is an excellent finishing oil for desserts, pastas and even steak and fish. Choose a cold-pressed version for maximum health benefits.

Best for

● Salads

● Desserts

● Finishing oil

Not recommended for

Cooking with heat

healthy coconut cooking oil

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is probably the most controversial oil on the list. Some people regard it the healthiest option while others think it’s the worst. The reason is the very high saturated fat content which can lead to high cholesterol levels. However, new science suggests that it may not be that harmful for you and there are many claimed health benefits for the hair and skin. While this is still up for a debate, we think coconut oil does have its place in the kitchen.

Best for

● Baking

● Medium heat roasting

Not recommended for

Frying above 350°F

Hemp Oil

Hemp oil has a rich, distinctive flavor and a dark green color. It is low in saturated fat and contains a high amount of omega 3 fatty acids, resulting in a healthy fat composition. Is breaks down easily when exposed to heat so we recommend it for low-heat applications only. Due to its strong flavor, you may want to mix is with a neutral flavored oil for salads or dips.

Best for

● Salad dressings

● Dips

● Marinades

Not recommended for

Cooking with heat


Cooking Oil Smoke Points

The smoke point of an oil determines how suitable it is to high temperature cooking methods. The higher the smoke point the better the oil is suited for high-temperature cooking. Once an oil – or any fat – reaches its smoke point it starts degrading and releasing harmful free-radicals.

Never cook again with an oil which has started smoking or caught fire. It may look fine once it has cooled down but there are harmful chemicals in it that you won’t be able to see. Apart from the chemicals, it also might have a burnt or bitter flavor and can ruin the taste of your food.

Here is a table with the smoke points of cooking oils and other fats.

infographic smoking points of common cooking oils and fats

Recommended Oils for Each Cooking Method

The most important considerations when choosing an oil for cooking is the temperature range of the cooking method, the flavor of the oil, and whether ifs refined or unrefined.

We have already covered smoke point in the section above so let’s dive into the other details.

Neutral vs Flavorful

Many oils have a distinctive flavor which may or may not work well with the food you are preparing.

Oils such as olive oil, mustard oil, most nut oils (almond, walnut, hazelnut, coconut) and most animal fats can and usually will alter the taste of your food I you are using them so make sure they are suitable for the dish you are cooking.

On the other hand, avocado oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil, cottonseed oil and most vegetable oils (corn, canola, sunflower, soybean, safflower) have neutral flavor profiles and generally don’t alter the flavor of the food.

Refined vs Unrefined

When oils are extracted from the plant, they can be either bottled right away or processed further before selling.

Unrefined oils – also called virgin, extra virgin, raw or cold-pressed – retain their natural composition and flavor, along with nutrients and mineral contents. This makes them a generally healthier option, but they come with the tradeoff of shorter shelf life and lower smoke point.

Refined oils, the ones sent for processing, are put through a filtering and bleaching process which removes the enzymes and nutrients from the oils. In exchange, they offer a more neutral flavor profile, longer shelf life and higher smoke points.

High-heat cooking methods

Deep frying, stir-frying, pan frying and roasting all require high temperatures during the cooking process.

Oils with a high smoke point and neutral flavor are best suited for these methods. We recommend avocado oil, rice bran oil, red palm oil, extra light olive oil or peanut oil. Most refined vegetable oils are also suitable for high-temperature cooking, but you might want to check their fat composition to pick the healthier options (see our fat composition chart earlier).

Medium heat cooking methods

For medium heat cooking methods such as oven cooking, baking and sauteing, you can use any of the above-mentioned oils as well as sesame oil, cottonseed oil or macadamia oil. Sauces that require light cooking are also included in this category.

Low heat cooking methods

These include salad dressings, dips and marinades. While technically you could use any oils mentioned in the high and medium temperature sections, we recommend using healthier, more flavorful virgin oils. Extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, hemp oil and flaxseed oil are our favorite choices.

infographic cooking methods of cooking oils

Fat Composition of Cooking Oils

One way to look at how healthy an oil is, is by looking at its fat composition. The 4 main types are saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated fats and trans fats. Polyunsaturated fats are further broken down into omega-3 and omega-6, among others.

Trans fats are the worst of the bunch, you want to avoid consuming them whenever you can.

Saturated fats are considered unhealthy in excess as they may lead to high cholesterol levels and have a negative impact on heart health. However, you don’t need to completely cut saturated fats from your diet and resent research suggests they might have a worse reputation than justified. Current guidelines suggest consuming no more than 10% of your fat intake in the form of saturated fats.

 Of the polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids have numerous health benefits including fighting depression, mental decline, cancer and improving eye and brain health. You don’t want too much omega-6 in your diet as it can raise your blood pressure and lead to blood clots.

 Monounsaturated fats are the healthiest variety as they reduce bad cholesterol levels and contribute to reduced risk of heart conditions and stroke.

In the table below, we are showing the fat composition of many common cooking oils and fats.

infographic of the ultimate fat compostion of common cooking oils and fats

How to Cook with Oils in a Healthy Way

Choose your cooking method wisely. Deep frying is the least healthy way to cook food so try to avoid it. If you must deep fry, pay extra attention to choosing a cooking oil with high smoke point to avoid harmful free radicals.

The smoke point of oils is also an important consideration for other high temperature cooking methods such as stir-frying or pan frying. Avocado oil, grapeseed oil, extra light olive oil, safflower oil, corn oil and sunflower oil are well suited for these methods.

Regardless of the type of oil you use, of you accidentally overheat it to the point where is starts smoking or burning, it will start to degrade. Throw is out and start with fresh oil again.

Pay attention to the proper storage conditions. Dark and cool places are best to keep oils fresh longer.

Do the smell test before you start cooking. If an oil smells bad, it could be rancid or oxidized and you should replace it.

Tammy Kennedy
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