Getting busy in the kitchen? You're going to need a little bit of fat to add flavor and moisture and keep food from sticking in the pan. While some fats can handle the heat, others don't fare so well, losing their original taste and nutrition content in the cooking process. Those that do hold up (a.k.a. have higher smoking thresholds) tend to be best for cooking, at least for those of us who prefer our meals without a side of char. Read on to find out how to pick the best fat for cooking any dish.
Greased Lightning—Your Action Plan
Oils tend to handle higher temperatures better than solid fats, which burn more quickly. Additionally, cooking with oil versus butter or lard is generally a better (and oftentimes more flavorful!) option for those trying to minimize saturated fats. Dietary fat and weight gain among women in the Nurses' Health Study. Field AE, Willett WC, Lissner L. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2007, Jun.;15(4):1930-7381.
Olive oil takes first place in the Great Oil Marathon (yes, we’re making that a thing). It’s most flavorful in its raw, uncooked form, but it’s also a winner for cooking too. Olive oil is extremely rich in monounsaturated fats and a great source of phytochemicals, which might help prevent some types of cancer. And compared to other fats, research suggests extra virgin olive oil was more likely to increase a person's feeling of fullness after a meal. Some recent research indicates that the Mediterranean diet staple might even make us happier.
Olive oil is best consumed “cold-pressed” (literally pressed out of the olive, with minimal heat involved), so avoid “pure olive oil,” “light olive oil,” or simple “olive oil” labels for maximum flavor and nutrition, at least when eating it cold. Extra virgin olive oil may smoke at 325°F, but refined (or “light”) olive oil can usually be heated to 450°F or higher—so save your extra virgin olive oil for off-heat uses such as salad dressings and choose a refined olive oil for sautéing vegetables.
A heat/cooking-friendly and budget-minded staple, canola oil is also a great source of essential fatty acids like lineoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha linolenic acid (omega-3). The body can’t make these compounds on its own, so it’s ultimately up to our diets. While most people get their share of omega-6s from everyday meals, it’s less common to get enough omega-3s, which have been linked to the prevention of heart disease. In addition to fatty fish and canola oil, other sources of omega-3s include flax, walnut, and hemp oils, though canola can handle the heat and is still tops for cooking.
This kitchen all-star can withstand some seriously high heat, making it a go-to for frying. And while it has a high amount of saturated fat, a few studies looked at coconut oil and found the combination of fatty acids in coconut oil may improve the ratio of total cholesterol. Coconut oil has numerous other health benefits (experts say it may promote weight loss and a healthy digestive tract) and can be a useful tool when applied in moderation. And don’t worry about making the kitchen smell like Gilligan’s Island—the “virgin” variety is virtually scent-free.
Grape Seed Oil
While we usually think of grapes for their aged output (hello, wine), grape seed oil holds its own in the cooking realm. Studies have found that the fatty acid and antioxidant-laden oil is especially well-suited for those looking to lose weight, with the oil helping to decrease the formation of new fat cells and inflammation. The studies are still in early days, and don't mention how exactly the oil was used (it's good for sautéing, baking, and stir-frying)—but research has also found it may lower blood pressure levels as well as overall heart rate, so try adding it to salad dressings for a healthy boost.
All the high-blood pressure sufferers, open sesame (sorry). Heavy in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated acids (PUFAs), sesame oil is may be beneficial for high blood pressure, thanks to a combo of PUFAs, vitamin E, and sesamin.
While additional studies are needed, researchers have linked the oil's fatty acids and antioxidants to an increase in “good” cholesterol and reduction of the bad kind—making it the primo choice for anyone with blood pressure on the brain.
Want to get off the beaten track? Explore cooking with slightly more exotic options, like safflower, avocado, sunflower, and almond oil. Many alternative vegetable oils are high in polyunsaturated fats, which can lower blood cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease. The downside? These fancy groceries tend to be a bit on the pricey side, so use sparingly.
When it comes to incorporating cooking oil into an everyday diet, it all comes down to heat. To retain their fatty acid content and avoid burning, flaxseed, walnut, hemp oils and high quality olive oils should only be used as condiments or in salad dressings, while the ones listed above are all cooking-friendly. And if experimentation with these oils in the kitchen doesn't quite go according to plan, rub them on the face for a moisturizing facial and call it a day. Though maybe that's an entirely different article.
Originally published December 2011. Updated February 2016.