culinary guides

Which Cooking Oil Should I Use?

Is there a best cooking oil?

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!

Grilled Chicken Kabobs

High Heat (420+ degrees)

Avocado Oil

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

Peanut Oil

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

Grapeseed Oil

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

Olive Oil

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)

Chunky Monkey Banana Zucchini Muffins

Medium Heat (350-400 degrees)

Sesame Oil

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

Vegetable/Canola Oil

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)

Summer Rolls with Spicy Peanut Sauce

Nutritionally Speaking

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.

Article Sources:

  1. https://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/types-of-cooking-oil

  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4490476/

  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24886626

Think Outside the Box with Nut Butter

peanut butter and banana toast

Nut butter is one of the healthiest and most versatile ingredients in your kitchen - are you using it to its full potential? Today I am doing a deeper dive into the health benefits of this superfood staple plus an overview of its many culinary uses outside of the classic PB&J.

The Health Benefits 

While protein is generally the frequently cited nutritional quality of nut butter, there are so many more reasons for incorporating it. First, nuts are commonly known as being a rich source of “healthy” fat (the good stuff). In technical terms, most varieties are comprised of mostly monounsaturated fat, also known as the “good” fat that has a beneficial effect on our blood cholesterol levels by lowering LDL levels and simultaneously increasing our HDL levels.

According to the literature, adding nuts daily can also slash your risk for developing heart disease, decrease your risk for type 2 diabetes, total cancer and all-cause mortality. The mechanisms behind these benefits are not entirely known, but science suggests that nuts have a beneficial effect on inflammatory markers which are a contributing factor to several chronic diseases. Many varieties of nuts are also high in magnesium which is beneficial for heart health. Plant sterols and their beneficial effect on endothelial function may also play a role.

It's also hard to ignore that many of the world’s most well-researched eating patterns include nuts as a staple including the highly regarded Mediterranean diet, the blood-pressure lowering DASH plan, and one that has been gaining popularity in recent years - the MIND diet - which may be effective in decreasing risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Suffice to say, most of us should be eating more nuts and seeds (unless you have an allergy of course) and nut butters can be a fabulous and delicious way to accomplish this. 

But does it cause weight gain?

This is your friendly reminder that fat is not the dietary villain it was once made out to be. In fact, fat provides greater satiety, adds flavor and a pleasant mouthfeel to any dish and a small amount goes a long way on the flavor front. Contrary to what was once thought, consumption of nuts and nut butters is actually associated with improved weight control, likely because of the fiber and fullness factor.

When targeting real food sources of fat (as opposed to highly processed snacks or fast food) fat content is not something that the general healthy person needs to stress over, especially if you are filling your plate with a diverse selection of foods and are mindful of the types of fat you are regularly consuming. Of course with most foods, moderation is key as nut butter is calorically dense.

Not sure what a standard serving of nut butter looks like? Break out the measuring spoons to give yourself a visual the first few times, then you can eyeball it from there. Think of a two tablespoon portion to be about the size of a golf ball for reference.

Going Beyond Peanut

Now, the small corner of a grocery store shelf that was once filled with the brands of your childhood now takes up almost an entire aisle in the modern supermarket. In addition to the classics you will find a plethora of varieties and flavor combinations including peanut, almond, walnut, sunflower seed, sesame seed (most commonly referred to as tahini) and even hazelnut, many of which often incorporate fun, indulgent and/or “superfood” mix-ins. Anything from cocoa powder to cinnamon raisin, honey to maple syrup to white chocolate and even coffee beans are used as flavor enhancers. The fancier the add-ins, the pricier it usually is so there’s no shame in keeping it simple.

Curious about the differences? Here are six different nut butters you might come across along with nutrition highlights and primary uses for each:


Peanut

  • Nutrition highlights: peanut butter is the highest protein choice with 8 grams per two tablespoon serving.
  • Primary uses: smear it on a honeycrisp apple, try it in a smoothie, or use it as the base of a sauce for Asian noodle dishes (I recommend creamy for this).

Almond

  • Nutrition highlights: almond butter is a good source of hard-to-come-by magnesium, a mineral that supports the immune system and helps regulate blood glucose. Almond butter is also a good source of vitamin E, which is also an antioxidant.
  • Primary uses: drizzle it over oatmeal, use as a dip for sliced pears, or as a binder and thickener in baked goods and energy balls.

Walnut

  • Nutrition highlights: in addition to all of the usual suspects, walnuts are unique because they contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant source of omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and beneficial for brain health.
  • Primary uses: since walnut butter tends to have a thicker, more grainy texture than some of the other options, try it as a spread on toast or straight up.

Sunflower

  • Nutrition highlights: sunflower seed butter provides zinc, in addition to folate and vitamin B6 (both of which help form red blood cells).
  • Primary uses: sunflower seed butter is a great alternative for anyone with peanut or tree nut allergies and can be substituted in any of the above scenarios. 

Sesame (Tahini)

  • Nutrition highlights: good plant-based source of calcium along with magnesium and iron.
  • Primary uses: salad dressings or sauces, as a key ingredient in hummus, or to add a savory element to traditionally sweet snacks (like these - hello!).
sweet potato with tahini sauce

Hazelnut

  • Nutrition highlights: rich in iron, magnesium and vitamin B6
  • Primary uses: since hazelnuts are most commonly associated with chocolate versions, spread it on strawberries to satisfy your sweet tooth while still reaping some nutritional benefits at the same time.

Should I Go Raw?

Some wonder if the nutrient profile is impacted by processing methods and like any food on the market, the answer is… sometimes. Have you ever noticed that most nut butters are available in “raw” versions in addition to their conventional counterparts? This essentially means that the nut or seed did not undergo any sort of roasting process before it was grinded down into the final product.

In terms of which one is the nutritionally superior choice, heat doesn’t seem to make a significant impact on macro or micronutrient content. However, heat can release potentially harmful compounds (as is the case with most foods when exposed to high heat). In the amount that nut butter is traditionally consumed, this shouldn’t be worrisome to the average person. Raw versions are also significantly more expensive and go rancid quicker, so if that deters you from purchasing it, go for the roasted over avoiding nut butter altogether because #healthbenefits. Experiment with the flavor profile of each as they are a quite different from each other.

Culinary Potential

Besides being a portable, shelf-stable and convenient source of protein, nut butters also have serious culinary appeal for use in all sorts of different recipes. Making nut butter from scratch is fairly straightforward, although a bit messy and time-consuming (and hey, the store-bought version is pretty darn convenient and affordable so I won’t judge if you opt for that instead). 

Some lesser known ways to incorporate it include sauces and dressings, stirring in to soups for creaminess and nuttiness, or adding it to smoothies for extra nutrition. You can also incorporate it into your favorite baked goods for a thickening agent and an extra boost of heart-healthy fat, fiber and protein.

This peanut butter banana muffin in particular puts a healthy spin on a classic, using natural peanut butter, flax seed and greek yogurt to pump up the nutrition. There's just enough chocolate chips to add some sweetness without making them dessert and it might just be your new favorite grab-and-go breakfast option in a pinch. Pro tip: pair it with a hard-boiled egg or two and a piece of fresh produce on your way out the door for even more staying power.

peanut butter banana chocolate chip muffins

Choose Wisely

While there is definitely no shortage of options to choose from when in the market for nut butter, remember to keep in mind that many of the available versions can be more dessert-like than breakfast staple and it’s a good idea to be mindful of that. No "good" or "bad" necessarily, but it's always helpful to be in the know.

In addition to sugar content, checking for nut butters free of added oils is another way to make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck nutritionally without extras that have a potentially negative impact on health (we’re looking at you, partially hydrogenated). While those chocolate and honey studded versions can be a fun treat, a good rule of thumb is to keep it simple for your go-to spread of choice for daily use. Nuts or seeds, plus some salt to bring out the flavor, are really the only must-have ingredients. And why mess with a good thing?

Have a favorite nut butter? Tell Me about it in the comments along with how you love to use it!

References:

Kim Y, Keogh JB, and Clifton PM. Benefits of Nut Consumption on Insulin Resistance and Cardiovascular Risk Factors: Multiple Potential Mechanisms of Actions. Nutrients. 2017;9(11): 1271. Retreived from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5707743/.

 D, Keum N, Giovannucci E, Fadnes LT, Boffetta P, Greenwood DC, Tonstad S, Vatten LJ, Riboli E, and Norat T.  Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC Med.2016; 14: 207. Retreived from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5137221/.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Minerals. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/minerals.html.

U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Vitamins. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/vitamins.html.