Cooking Oil: Pros and Cons of Your Go-to OilsJan. 10, 2020 - Amanda Beaver
Our options in the cooking oil aisle have expanded dramatically over the last few years. Extra-virgin olive oil has long been regarded as the gold standard for cooking oils — but is it still the best choice even with the new contenders that have entered the market?
If you ask me what is the best oil to cook with, I will say it depends! Every cooking oil is different. Before we dive into which to choose, we first need to talk about what makes a good cooking oil.
Choosing the right cooking oil depends on a few factors
In addition to how you're cooking your food (or if you're baking), consider these factors before you pick a cooking oil:
The healthfulness of the oil. Not all fats are created equal! Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are healthy fats, while it is recommended to limit saturated fat. In fact, the American Heart Association recommends replacing saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated ones.
How hot or how long you will be cooking the food. Each type of fat behaves differently when heated. If heated at too high of a temperature or for too long, some fats can degrade and oxidize — producing compounds that may be detrimental to our health. This may also change the way they taste, making them taste worse. Polyunsaturated fats oxidize more readily compared to saturated and monounsaturated fats.
Smoke point of the oil. The smoke point of a cooking oil is the temperature the oil begins to smoke at while it's being heated. If your oil begins to smoke in the pan, throw it out! This is a sign that the oil has begun to degrade and produce unhealthy compounds. Unrefined cooking oils generally have lower smoke points than refined oils, making them less ideal for high heat cooking.
The flavors you are going for. Each cooking oil has a different flavor profile, which may affect how your meal tastes. These flavors range from rich and buttery to fishy.
Pros and cons of popular cooking oils
Now that we know what makes a cooking oil a good cooking oil, let's compare the fat composition, ability to withstand heat and flavor profile of common options you'll find in the grocery store.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
As the darling of the Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, and it contains polyphenols — the antioxidant compounds believed to contain some of the heart healthy benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
How it stands up to heat: A recent study found extra-virgin olive oil to be one of the most stable oils when heated, and it's believed that the antioxidant polyphenols found in extra-virgin olive oil help protect the oil during heating.
Flavor profile: Extra-virgin olive oil has a rich, fruity, buttery flavor that enhances the taste of almost any dish.
The bottom line: Extra-virgin olive oil is my top pick for a cooking oil. I recommend choosing extra-virgin olive oil as your kitchen workhorse — using it for everything from sautéing to roasting, as well as the base of your salad dressings.
Fat composition: Coconut oil contains fats known as medium chain triglycerides, which have been shown to have health benefits. However, these fats make up a small percentage of coconut oil and it would take very large amounts of this oil to reach real health benefits. The large majority of the fats found in cooking oil are saturated fats, which the American Heart Association recommends limiting.
How it stands up to heat: Since it contains very little polyunsaturated fats, which tend to oxidize more quickly than saturated and monounsaturated fats, coconut oil has been found to be very stable when heated.
Flavor profile: It may sound obvious, but keep in mind that coconut oil may impart a slight coconut taste to recipes.
The bottom line: Coconut oil is one of the new kids on the block when it comes to cooking oils. It's regarded with a health halo, but many of its claims to fame are overhyped. I would recommend coconut oil when trying to create a rich mouthfeel in recipes or if you're looking for a vegan replacement for butter in baked goods.
Fat composition: Avocado oil is rich in beneficial monounsaturated fats — just like extra-virgin olive oil. In addition, avocado oil can also contain antioxidant compounds, which provide added heart-healthy benefits.
Flavor profile: Avocado oil has a mild buttery flavor and is great to use when roasting veggies or in salad dressings.
The bottom line: Avocado oil now seems to be taking up more and more space in the cooking oil aisle, and for good reason. The fat profile and other benefits of avocado oil make it a great cooking oil to add to your repertoire.
Fat composition: Canola oil doesn't have as many monounsaturated fats as some of the other cooking oils, but it still has a decent amount. The rest of the oil is comprised mainly of beneficial polyunsaturated fats, including some of the heart-healthy omega-3 fats (also found in walnuts).
How it stands up to heat: Although canola oil has a high smoke point, the polyunsaturated fats may not stand up well to high heat and long cooking times. In addition, when heated, the polyunsaturated fats can transform into small amounts of trans fats. Although trans fats are the "bad" fats that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, some studies suggest this increase is not significant at normal home cooking times and temperatures.
Flavor profile: Canola oil has a neutral flavor that can allow other flavors to shine through. But, some cooks avoid this oil since it can begin to taste and smell slightly fishy as it ages — because of the omega-3s.
The bottom line: Canola oil has been touted as a healthful cooking oil by health authorities, but it also has its share of critics. While much of the bad rap has been overblown, it does have some downsides — like its reduced heat tolerance and potential to impart a fishy flavor.
Fat composition: Peanut oil has a decent amount of beneficial monounsaturated fats.
How it stands up to heat: Peanut oil has a high smoke point, which makes it great for high-heat cooking and frying.
Flavor profile: Peanut oil has a neutral to lightly nutty flavor.
The bottom line: Peanut oil's tolerance to high heat makes it great for frying or stir-frying, and its neutral flavor means it doesn't get a bad rap for off-flavors.
Vegetable oil is either 100% soybean oil or made up of a blend of oils that may include corn, canola, soybean, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed — or others.
Fat composition: Vegetable oil is made up of a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats. You may hear concerns over its polyunsaturated omega-6 fats promoting inflammation, but scientists are still studying this theory. Several studies show that omega-6 fats do not increase many inflammatory markers or the risk of heart disease —but stay tuned for more research.
How it stands up to heat: Vegetable oil has a high smoke point, but it's also made up of a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats, which can break down during long cooking times or high heat — such as in a restaurant fryer.
The bottom line: With a neutral flavor and high smoke point, vegetable oil is can be used for anything, from baking to marinades. Although its inexpensive price tag is tempting, I think there are other oils with more benefits out there.
Fat composition: Sesame oil contains a generous amount of polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, both of which impart heart-healthy benefits.
How it stands up to heat: Toasted sesame oil has a lower smoke point than regular sesame oil, so is best to add toasted sesame oil at the end of cooking or in dressings.
Flavor profile: Regular sesame oil has a mild flavor and is great for stir-frying. Toasted sesame oil has a potent, nutty flavor and rich aroma, so a little goes a long way!
The bottom line: Sesame oil is another great cooking oil candidate. There are two main types: toasted sesame oil and regular sesame oil. Regular sesame oil can be used for stir-frying and sautéing. Add a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil to finish a delicious noodle dish, stir-fry or fried-rice recipe — or mix with rice or sherry vinegar for an Asian-inspired salad dressing.
Safflower & Sunflower Oil
Fat composition: Safflower and sunflower oil are comprised of mostly of polyunsaturated fats. In fact, safflower oil has the most polyunsaturated fats of all of the cooking oils.
How it stands up to heat: Since these oils are high in polyunsaturated fats, they can degrade as they're heated. However, high oleic versions of safflower and sunflower oil are available at some stores. High oleic safflower and sunflower oil are rich in monounsaturated fats, the healthful fat found in extra-virgin olive oil and avocado oil, which may make them more stable to heat.
The bottom line: It matters which type of safflower or sunflower oil you buy! Look for high oleic options. With added benefits of a high smoke point and neutral flavor, high oleic safflower and sunflower oil are better choices for frying or searing than traditional safflower and sunflower oil counterparts.
Ghee is a type of clarified butter used in Indian cooking. While more of a cooking fat than a cooking oil, we're addressing ghee because of its increasing popularity as a cooking oil substitute.
Fat composition: Most of the fat found in ghee comes from saturated fat, with the rest from monounsaturated fat. Ghee does contain small amounts of the beneficial compounds, like CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) and butyrate, but likely not in large enough quantities to have health benefits.
How it stands up to heat: Because ghee contains little polyunsaturated fat, it may be more stable than some cooking oils during heating. It also has a much higher smoke point than butter.
The bottom line: Ghee has gained a following in recent years since people following a Paleo or Whole 30 diet are allowed this cooking fat. While it has some benefits, ghee is mostly saturated fats — which the American Heart Association recommends limiting.
So which cooking oil should you choose?
Most of the time, my answer is still: It depends!
But, despite the myriad options in the cooking oil aisle, my top pick is still extra-virgin olive oil. With its great flavor, versatility and the large body of research backing it as a healthful oil — you can't really go wrong!
My pick for runner-up is avocado oil because it is also rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
Some of the popular options, like coconut oil, ghee and canola oil, aren't "superfoods" as some might have you think, but they may not be as unhealthy as critics imply. They all have pros and cons, and many of the claims about these cooking oils are blown out of proportion.