In the kitchen, cooks have plenty of options when it comes to choosing a cooking oil to sauté, bake and drizzle with. Some, like olive oil, are well known, and others, like avocado or sesame oil, are less familiar.
Which oil is right for you? That depends largely on the type of cooking you’re doing. An oil’s smoke point, which is the point when oil starts burning and smoking, is one of the most important things to consider. If you heat oil past its smoke point, it not only harms the flavor, but it may lose any nutrients in the oil as it degrades.
One of the most versatile and healthy oils to cook with and eat is olive oil, as long as it’s extra virgin. Generally, you want an oil that is not refined and overly processed. An “extra virgin” label means that the olive oil is not refined, and therefore of high quality. Extra virgin olive oil contains a large amount of monounsaturated fats and some polyunsaturated fatty acids; many studies have linked it to better heart health. Olive oil has a relatively lower smoke point compared to other oils, so it’s best for low and medium-heat cooking.
It’s also one of the healthiest oils to use when baking. As a dressing it’s great, too.
Depending on who you ask, coconut oil should either be avoided or embraced in moderation because coconut oil is primarily a saturated fat. Not everyone agrees that such a concentrated source of saturated fat is a no-go for health, but the American Heart Association argues that replacing foods that are high in saturated fat with healthier options can lower blood cholesterol levels.
That doesn’t mean it should not be used in the kitchen. Coconut oil can be a healthier oil to use when you’re cooking at a very high temperature or frying food, because they are more stable at high heat. This means that they are less likely to break down and smoke.
The term “vegetable oil” is used to refer to any oil that comes from plant sources. Most vegetable oils on the market are a blend of canola, corn, soybean, safflower, palm and sunflower oils. They’re not necessarily bad for you, but you can get so much more health benefit from olive oil.
Vegetable oil is guaranteed to be highly processed. It’s called ‘vegetable’ so that the manufacturers can substitute whatever commodity oil they want—soy, corn, cottonseed, canola—without having to print a new label.
Avocado oil is a great choice. It’s unrefined like extra virgin olive oil, but it has a higher smoking point, which means it can be used to cook at higher heat and is great for stir-frys. It doesn’t have much flavor, which makes it a good option for cooking. One downside is that it tends to be more expensive.
This oil has a high smoke point and doesn’t have a strong flavor, which means it won’t overwhelm a dish. However, sunflower oil contains a lot of omega-6 fatty acids which are thought to be pro-inflammatory, so moderation is key.
Nut oils, like peanut, can be very useful in the kitchen, especially since there are so many different types. Peanut oil has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents among cooking oils. It’s usually flavorful with a nutty taste and smell, and cooks well at high heat. Many restaurants use peanut oil for their fried food.
This oil has a low smoke point, so it’s not good for cooking, but it can be used in plenty of other ways to add the nutty flavor of walnuts to dishes.
Flaxseed oil has a very low smoke point, which means it also shouldn’t be used for cooking. Flaxseed oil is better suited for salad dressing than for cooking and make sure it’s stored in the refrigerator.
This oil is often used for its potent flavor, especially in Asian cooking and a little goes a long way. It contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, though it’s not especially high in other nutrients. It has a higher smoke point and can be used for high-heat recipes.
Bill Rice is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Great Family Cookbook Project, a website that helps families and individuals collect, preserve and share food memories by creating their own printed personal cookbooks. He is the author of The Wellfleet Oyster Cookbook and the Cape Cod Cocktail Cookbook (Available on Amazon), both created using FamilyCookbookProject.com. He is also editor of the Donovan Family Cookbook, now it’s third printing and is an avid genealogist tracing his family back to the 1600’s.