The Lowdown on Oil
Oil is a key ingredient in the home cook’s repertoire. It’s used in everything from sautéing, roasting and frying to marinades, dressings and sauces. And sure, it’s possible to cook without oil but you wouldn’t be able to achieve that signature browning on fish or crispy edge on brussels sprouts that tastes so delicious.
If there is one cooking-related question that I hear over and over again it’s this one: “which cooking oil should I be using?” I completely understand why there is confusion about this as I’ve read a lot of contradictory articles in the news of late - some sounding rather alarming! As with most things, there isn’t one perfect answer or any one oil that performs well across the board, it’s more of a question of when to use which. So how exactly do you begin evaluating your cooking oils?
There are a couple of key factors to consider when it comes to oils: flavor and smoke point.
The first one is self-explanatory, but smoke point tends to throw people off a bit.
Essentially the more unrefined and delicate that an oil is, the lower the smoke point is. This is the maximum temperature that you should hit when using it because once an oil reaches it’s smoke point, the chemical structure starts to break down which makes for an undesirable flavor and the release of some potentially harmful chemicals.
I wanted to limit this overview to the most popular oils that I tend to see in recipes. So without further ado, here is your comprehensive guide to all things cooking oil!
High Heat (420+ degrees)
Flavor/use: Due to the very high smoke point, avocado oil is ideal if you plan to do any frying/deep-frying. You might also consider using it for high-heat roasting. It’s one of the more expensive options (not surprising considering how much avocados cost) and might be a little bit harder to find.
Smoke point: 520 degrees
Flavor/use: Peanut oils are great for Asian cuisine like stir-fries and all of the related sauces and marinades. It definitely has a strong peanut aroma and the smoke point is on the high end, so it also works for higher-heat roasting.
Smoke point: 450 degrees
Flavor/use: The higher smoke point and neutral flavor make grapeseed a good option for roasting or grilling vegetables, or in salad dressings if you don’t want the olive flavor that comes with EVOO.
Smoke point: 420 degrees
Flavor/use: This is definitely the workhorse of oils. I think of olive oil as one of the most used ingredients in my kitchen because I incorporate it almost daily whether it be to quickly saute vegetables, make homemade salad dressings or fry up an egg. It does have a notable olive flavor, but you usually don’t detect it when cooked. Extra-virgin olive oil has a much lower smoke point (325 degrees) so be sure to check which one you have and adjust accordingly.
Smoke point: 410 degrees (regular/pure)
Medium Heat (350-400 degrees)
Flavor/use: The aroma and flavor of sesame oil is incredible! Another great choice for Asian cuisine, especially crisping up tofu and stir-fry. Note that if you buy toasted sesame oil, the smoke point is likely much lower.
Smoke point: 410 degrees
Flavor/use: These both have a neutral flavor and are great, multi-purpose oils. I tend to use them most in baked goods like muffins and quick breads. I sometimes see rumblings on the internet about how canola oil is a bad choice for your health (read this for clarification on some of the myths and facts). Overall, the research shows that the fatty acid profile is quite favorable to heart health as it provides beneficial anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
Smoke point: 400 degrees
Coconut Oil (unrefined)
Flavor/use: It has a mild coconut flavor, is solid at room temperature and liquid when heated. Of all of the oils mentioned in this article, coconut certainly seems to have the most media buzz. While it’s perfectly fine to add it to your rotation, I wouldn’t bank on it having any magical impacts on your health. I like it best in vegan baked goods as a substitute for butter, or in cuisines that pair well with the coconut flavor.
Smoke point: 350 degrees
Low Heat (less than 350 degrees)
Toasted Walnut or flax Oil
Flavor/use: Most toasted nut and seed oils are considered to be very delicate and shouldn’t be used for cooking, but can instead add a unique flavor to salad dressings or sauces.
Smoke point: very low (not meant to be heated)
When it comes to nutrition, there are definitely some standouts. Here’s a brief overview of which oils have the most research to support any potential health benefits:
Olive oil is great source of monounsaturated fatty acids which are known to have a beneficial effect on our blood lipid profile (i.e. cholesterol & triglyceride levels). It’s definitely the most well-researched of the cooking oils as it’s a staple in the Mediterranean diet. Use this guide for helpful tips for purchasing olive oil!
Avocado oil is another great source of monounsaturated fatty acids but it’s also on the pricey side, which can be prohibitive to using it often.
Walnut & Flax oil (like their whole food counterparts) are both plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids so when it comes to high-flavor finishers and interesting salad dressings, you might consider giving one of these a try.
Remember that oils, while useful in cooking, are still recommended in small amounts relative to foundational health-promoting foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. I like to think of them as a complement to enhance flavor in home-cooked meals instead of considering oils a good source of nutrients. Your best bet is to keep a well-stocked kitchen so you can incorporate a variety of fats and oils into your cooking based on their functional properties.