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. Plus, healthy fats are key in any healthy eating plan.
While some fats can handle the heat, others don’t fare so well, losing their original taste and nutrition content in the cooking process (and probably getting super smoky, too).
Those that do hold up (aka have higher smoke points) 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.
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.
1. Olive oil
Olive oil is extremely rich in monounsaturated fats and a great source of phytochemicals, which are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Current research is finding links from extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) to reduced inflammation, oxidative stress, and all kinds of other processes related to conditions like obesity, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes.
It’s no wonder following a Mediterranean diet using EVOO is being recommended by so many major groups like the American Heart Association.
Extra virgin olive oil may smoke at 325°F (163°C), but refined (or “light”) olive oil can usually be heated to 450°F (232°C) 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 veggies.
2. Avocado oil
Oh, avo, what can’t you do? Avocado oil gives olive oil a run for its money when it comes to health and cooking convenience. It’s mild flavor blends well into most recipes.
Some animal studies have shown that avocado oil could be similarly beneficial in helping to prevent metabolic illnesses. Avocado oil is full of heart-healthy oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid. It also fits well into that Mediterranean lifestyle.
But a huge bonus to good ol’ avo is its high smoke point which can be up to 480°F (249°C) or more. More research is needed to really understand all of the bennies of avocado oil, but it’s likely an ideal combo of high heat and high health value.
3. Canola oil
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. Many dietitians consider canola oil one of the more healthy oil choices.
4. Coconut oil
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. Other research shows that it may still potentially increase overall cholesterol and triglycerides.
More research is needed to know if coconut oil should be elevated to olive and avocado oil status, but it’s worth exploring if you enjoy the flavor and versatility. It may also be worth talking with your doctor or dermatologist about topical uses.
And don’t worry about making the kitchen smell like Gilligan’s Island — the “virgin” variety is virtually scent-free.
5. Grapeseed oil
While we usually think of grapes for their aged output (hello, wine), grapeseed oil holds its own in the cooking realm.
Grapeseed oil is rich in phenolic compounds, fatty acids, and vitamins, all of which we need in our diets. Research is still in early stages and in vitro studies, but there is potential for anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, antimicrobial, and anticancer benefits. We’ll see what more research tells us.
What we do know is that grapeseed oil is good for sautéing, baking, stir-frying, and in dressings. So far so good!
6. Sesame oil
All those who deal with high-blood pressure, open sesame (sorry). Heavy in healthy mono- and polyunsaturated acids (PUFAs), sesame oil may be beneficial for high blood pressure and have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. As with many of these oils, more research needs to be done to know all of the benefits.
Sesame oil is also high in delicious flavor and is an excellent addition to sauces and marinades that require a good hit of nuttiness and depth. Just note that it isn’t as mild as olive, avocado, and vegetable oil and will add a lot more flavor. Use it sparingly.
7. Other oils
Want to get off the beaten track? Explore cooking with slightly less common options, like safflower, 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 them with care.
For high heat cooking and general stability, you’ll want to make sure to avoid these oils, which have a tendency to either be too unstable or to burn when heated:
- Palm oil. Palm oil is high in saturated fats and has been linked to a major deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse forests.
- Flax oil. Flax oil is a healthy choice, but one with a very low smoke point of about 225°F (107°C). If you enjoy it, you could use it in cold form, such as in salad dressings.
- Fish oil. Known for its major health benefits as a supplement, these oils should only be taken cold or in pill-form.
Your doctor or dietitian may also recommend avoiding certain oils based on your own health needs. Speak with them to choose the cooking oils right for your kitchen and your bod.
When it comes to incorporating cooking oil into an everyday diet, it all comes down to health and heat. We’re learning more and more about the benefits of the Med Diet, so EVOO and avocado oil are always great choices in general.
To retain their fatty acid content and avoid burning, flax, 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.