When it comes to cooking oils, there is a whole world beyond olive oil. But with so many different options to choose from, how do you know which one to reach for?
While some oils are considered all-purpose, good for sautéing, roasting and more, other varieties are more suitable for salad dressings and marinades. And once you throw smoke points into the equation, it can get pretty overwhelming.
What’s a smoke point, exactly? Something pretty serious, actually. “When an oil is heated above its natural limit, it starts to break down and become oxidized,” explains Liz McKinney, a certified nutritionist at the Counseling & Wellness Center of Pittsburgh. “Oxidation causes free radical production, which damages our cells and can even promote cancerous cell formation.”
When you exceed the smoke point, it’s not only bad for the body upon ingestion, but it can burn the oils, making them taste bad, adds Erin Peisach, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in San Diego, California. “Unsaturated fats are quite fragile,” she says.
That’s where storage of your cooking oils becomes a key element, too. Since light can promote oxidation, McKinney advises keeping oils in dark glass bottles and storing them in a cool, dry, dark place.
From preparation to overall health benefits, here’s everything you need to know about some of the most popular cooking oils out there.
7 Popular Cooking Oils
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A personal favorite of many, including Peisach, the heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil is rich in antioxidants and healthy fats. “It’s one of the highest in monounsaturated fats and doesn’t require chemical or high-heat extraction processes, which can damage the oil,” Peisach says.
A major component in a Mediterranean-style diet, extra virgin olive oil can be used as a dipping oil (hello, bread!) or as a key ingredient in a vinaigrette. It should not be heated past 320 degrees (you can use light olive oil for high-heat cooking). If you don’t love the taste of olive oil, Peisach suggests swapping it with the more neutral tasting avocado oil.
This superstar oil is “packed with monounsaturated fats,” McKinney says. With a smoke point of about 520 degrees, avocado oil is equally ideal for sautéing, roasting and searing as it is for dressings and dips.
“Primarily a saturated fat and solid at room temperature, coconut oil is an amazing source of caprylic acid, which promotes ketone production, increases HDL cholesterol, promotes brain health and has powerful antimicrobial and antifungal properties,” McKinney raves. With a smoke point of 350 degrees, coconut oil is ideal for frying, baking and sautéing.
However, if you’re not a fan of the taste of coconut, seek out a coconut oil that is refined, as it has a more neutral flavor.
Unrefined sesame oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees and should be used sparingly in dishes like stir fries and salads. That’s because it has a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, which McKinney says “can promote inflammation and damage cells.” (The ideal ratio is 1:1, she says.)
Like sesame oil, sunflower oil should be used sparingly, McKinney says, as it also has a high omega-6/omega-3 ratio. With a smoke point of 440 degrees, it can be used for frying and baking, as well as drizzled on salads.
Flaxseed oil is best when used on salads, McKinney says, as it has a low smoke point of 225 degrees. “Flaxseeds are a good source of an omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid, which is important for brain health, but it also contains a good amount of omega-6s, so proceed with caution,” McKinney says.
Almond oil is another good source of monounsaturated fat, McKinney says. With a 420 degree smoke point, it’s ideal for frying, roasting and baking, as well as in cold preparations, such as homemade butters and salad dressings.
Cooking Oils to Avoid
“Oil is part of a healthy, balanced diet, but it’s important to avoid highly processed pro-inflammatory oils,” Peisach advises.
“As a general rule, avoid most vegetable oils,” McKinney adds. “Vegetable oils have a higher omega-6 content to omega-3 content and promote inflammation.”
Oils to use with caution or to avoid using on a daily basis include soybean oil, peanut oils, corn oil, grape seed oil and safflower oil, McKinney says.
What to Consider When Buying Cooking Oils
When shopping for cooking oils, McKinney recommends people look for “organic, non-GMO, cold pressed or centrifuge extracted and unrefined” varieties.
Cold pressed, Peisach explains, “implies a colder temperature was used during the extraction process, which helps retain the oil’s natural properties compared to high-heat extraction that can change the quality of the oil.”
This means that the oil was “not extracted from chemically treated or genetically modified crops, and was not processed at a high heat, which can cause rancidity and oxidation,” McKinney adds. (These can include expeller-pressed oils, which were made via a mechanical oil extraction process, Peisach explains.)
And what’s the difference between refined and unrefined oils? “Refined oils are less nutrient dense than unrefined oils, but when cooking at higher heats, refined oils are a better choice since they have a higher smoke point,” McKinney says.
“When consuming oils and foods that are in the right form, with the nutrient preserving extraction process, our food becomes a kind of therapy and truly nourishes us,” McKinney concludes.