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5 Best Oils for Cooking

Most people are accustomed to frying or sautéing their favorite meals in oil, but many probably don't give much thought to it. Many shop by price, buying a brand they grew up with, or what the celebrity chef on TV uses. However, when choosing a cooking oil, you'll need to consider its smoke point and whether it's refined or unrefined. Some fats, like polyunsaturated fats, may be unstable and unhealthy when heated. Let's take a look at the characteristics of various types of oils for cooking.

You may wonder if the cooking oil you use is healthy or if it's time to find a new one. When choosing a cooking oil, there seems to be endless options at the grocery store. It can feel overwhelming to choose one, especially considering the fact that they all taste different and may impact your health in various ways.

When choosing a cooking oil, there are many things to consider, including flavor, nutrition, smoke point, and the manufacturing process. Read on to learn about the best oils for cooking.

Cooking oil basics

Not all cooking oils can handle high heat. Some are better used cold in salads, others are suited for sautéing, and some can handle heavy frying. Here are three things to consider when choosing cooking oil.

Smoke point

The smoke point is the temperature where the oil starts to break down and convert into unhealthy substances. Using delicate oil, like olive oil, over high heat causes it to smoke, which smells bad and becomes visibly burnt. The fat molecules in the oil deteriorate and leads to harmful free radicals in the body, contributing to disease. If cooking over high heat, consider oils with higher smoke points, like avocado or peanut oil.

Fat composition

Cooking oils contain varying amounts of dietary fat: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated. For a long time, saturated fat was thought to contribute to heart disease, but lately, scientists are learning that the data is flawed.

A group of scientists independently reviewed 15 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that looked at over 15,000 participants. The review was well-designed — RCTs are set up to show cause and effect, unlike other studies. The results showed that reducing the saturated fat in a diet had no effect on the risk of dying from heart disease.

Good oils to choose from include those that contain saturated fats and monounsaturated fats. They tend to be more stable under heat, and polyunsaturated fats tend to break down, deteriorate, and cause damage. Health professionals recommend avoiding all trans fats — the unhealthiest of all oils.

Refined or unrefined?

Extracting oil from food sources takes heat and sometimes heavy processing. Cooking oils are either refined or unrefined, which refers to how they are created. Refined oils use higher heat levels to bring out the oil and may lose nutrients through the process — but they are often more shelf-stable. Conversely, unrefined oils use minimal or no heat, retain more flavor and nutrition, and have a shorter shelf life.

5 Best cooking oils

With those factors in mind, there are still seemingly endless options to choose from at the grocery store. To make it easier, here are five good cooking oils options to keep in the pantry.

1. Avocado oil

Avocado oil is made by pressing avocados and contains many monounsaturated fats, which are considered healthy and stable enough not to deteriorate during cooking. The other benefits of avocado oil are its high smoke point — over 500°F (260°C) — and its mild flavor.

Avocado oil is high in antioxidants, particularly lutein, which may improve eye health. Avocado oil also contains a compound called avocado soy unsaponifiable (ASU), which may be helpful for people with osteoarthritis. Although avocado is one of the more expensive oils, between the health benefits, mild flavor, and high smoke point, it’s a great oil to keep on hand.

2. Peanut oil

Another high-heat oil, peanut oil, is harder to find but is worth the search. Peanut oil is a refined oil made from crushed peanuts and contains many heart-healthy and stable monounsaturated fats. Peanut oil has a high smoke point of 450°F (232°C), which means it withstands high-heat cooking. Furthermore, it's relatively inexpensive and has a mild flavor.

Peanut oil also includes plant phytosterols, a compound that may improve heart health. Additionally, peanut oil is a great source of vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant in the body, reducing inflammation and the risk of many diseases.

3. Coconut oil

Coconut oil is very popular right now, and not just for cooking. People are using it in shampoos, lotions, and other products for its moisturizing ability. It's made by pressing the white flesh inside coconuts and has been used for millennia on islands like the Philippines and Polynesia. It contains stable saturated and unsaturated fats, which makes it ideal for cooking.

Coconut oil has a medium smoke point of 350°F (177°C), so it's best to use it over low or medium heat, never high heat. Coconut oil contains heart-healthy plant compounds, like phytosterols and antioxidants. Because of its high level of saturated fat, it comes solid at room temperature and is shelf stable, meaning no refrigeration is necessary.

4. Sesame oil

Sesame oil is popular in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, and has a robust flavor. It is made from toasted or raw sesame seeds, the seeds you commonly see on top of hamburger buns. Sesame oil is a great source of vitamin E and plant compounds called phytosterols, which are heart-healthy.

You can choose sesame oil made from raw seeds if you like a lighter flavor. If you love the darker, nuttier, more robust flavor, choose sesame oil made from toasted sesame seeds. Sesame oil has a relatively high smoke point of 410°F (210°C) so it's a great oil to use when whipping up some veggies in your wok over a higher heat.

5. Olive oil

Olive oil, a Mediterranean staple, seems to be everyone’s favorite healthy cooking oil. Olive oil does have a good amount of healthy, stable fats, including monounsaturated fats, saturated fats, and only a small amount of polyunsaturated fat. It’s also high in vitamins E and K.

Olive oil has a lower smoke point than other oils, around 375°F (190°C), so it’s best to use it cold on vegetables or salads or for sautéing over medium heat. Olive oil is fine to cook with, but should never be used over a high heat. There are different types of olive oil, some with a more robust flavor (like extra virgin olive oil) and others with a mild flavor.

A note on vegetable oils

For the past few decades, vegetable oils like corn or canola oil have been promoted as healthy oils due to their low levels of saturated fat. However, these oils have high levels of polyunsaturated fats, and recent research shows that those fats may be unstable at high temperatures. Additionally, these oils change and degrade when exposed to high heat, which may lead to oxidative stress and inflammation. Canola oil and other vegetable oils are also more heavily processed than those listed above.

While the variety of cooking oils on the grocery store shelf these days may feel overwhelming, just remember to keep a few things in mind. Choosing an oil with stable fats and a high smoke point is important. And don’t forget about flavor. Try a few until you find one you like.

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