How to Choose Healthy & Tasty Cooking Oils

Updated on March 17, 2016
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Vespa's recipes have appeared in "Midwest Living" & "Taste of Home" magazines. She belongs to "Cook's Recipe Testers" for Cooks Illustrated.

How to Choose Cooking Oil

Extra virgin olive oil has sashayed into the limelight. Affectionately nicknamed EVOO, it lavishes flavor on salads and grilled meats and is an essential ingredient in Italian dishes such as bruschetta. Olive oil's flavor has been described as anything from buttery or fruit to peppery or silky and has gourmet followers the world over.

Did you know that at high temperatures, EVOO transforms into a poisonous pool of free radicals that can ravage and pollute the human body? There are at least three factors to consider when choosing cooking oil: Is it saturated or unsaturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated? What is the smoke point? Jobs such as frying demand oil that can be heated to a high temperature without degradation.

Sounds overwhelming, right? Stay with us as we break down each point.


Saturated vs. Unsaturated Fats

Fats fall into two categories: saturated and unsaturated. Saturated fats are mainly animal-based and solid at room temperature. Unsaturated fats can come from both animal and plant sources and are liquid at room temperature.

What are trans fats? Trans fats are produced when liquid oil is made solid through a process called hydrogenation, which increases the shelf life of the fat. Trans and saturated fats raise unhealthy LDL cholesterol and lower healthy HDL cholesterol, which can increase risk of cardiovascular disease.

For a healthy lifestyle, it is best to minimize the intake of saturated and trans fats. In this article we will only discuss the selection of unsaturated oils for healthy cooking.


Monounsaturated vs. Polyunsaturated Oils

Unsaturated oils are either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. Although they differ in chemical composition, both can help lower blood cholesterol levels. Polyunsaturated oils, such as corn, vegetable and sunflower, reduce both good and bad cholesterol while monounsaturated oils, such as olive and canola oil, reduce only the bad cholesterol without affecting the good cholesterol.

Some unrefined polyunsaturated oils, such as flaxseed oil, contain heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids which decrease risk of coronary artery disease and lower blood pressure. These oils, sensitive to high temperatures and highly perishable, are best for salads or other uses which don't require heat. They are best stored in the refrigerator to prevent rancidity.

But since even healthful oils can transform into poison at high temperatures, it is vital to know the smoke point before choosing an oil.


What is Smoke Point? Why Is It Important?

Smoke point is the stage at which heated oils begin to smoke. At smoke point, oils begin to emit unpleasant and often toxic smoke as the molecular structure is broken down. Toxic, bitter compounds are also produced which affect both flavor and nutrition of the food. Smoke point is also dangerously close to flash point, which means the oil may quickly catch on fire!

So how can one prevent a healthful oil from becoming a toxic compound and a safety hazard? Oils with a lower smoke point, such as EVOO, are best to sauté foods over low or medium heat. Oils with a higher smoke point, such as peanut oil, are ideal choices for hotter jobs such as frying. The "smoke point" chart and "recommendations" capsule will help you choose the most healthful oil for each job in the kitchen. Note that smoke points are somewhat debatable, depending on information source and methodology.


Smoke Point for Refined Oils

Oil
Type (Poly or Monounsaturated)
Smoke Point: Fahrenheit
Smoke Point: Celsius
Almond
monounsaturated
420
216
Avocado
monounsaturated
520
271
Canola
monounsaturated
400
204
Coconut
saturated
350
177
Corn
polyunsaturated
450
232
Cottonseed
polyunsaturated
450
216
Flaxseed
polyunsaturated
225
107
Grapeseed
polyunsaturated
480
250
Macadamia Nut
monounsaturated
390
199
Extra Virgin Olive
monounsaturated
375
191
Virgin olive
monounsaturated
391
199
Polmace Olive Oil
monounsaturated
460
238
Peanut
monounsaturated
450
232
Safflower (high oleic)
polyunsaturated
510
232
Sesame
polyunsaturated
410
210
Soybean
polyunsaturated
490
232
Sunflower
polyunsaturated
450
232
Vegetable
polyunsaturated
400-450
204-232
Walnut
monounsaturated
400
204

Recommendations:


  • Sauté: 325-375 F

  • Stir-fry: 420 F

  • Deep-Fry: 450F

  • Grill: 450F or higher (brush oil directly onto meat)

  • Popcorn: 450F

  • Baking: canola and vegetable oils are great for their neutral flavor. Coconut oil may be chosen for health benefits.

  • Salads: canola, safflower or sunflower oils are nice because they don't solidify when refrigerated. Unrefined flaxseed, walnut and extra virgin olive oils are often chosen for nutty/sweet/fruity flavor or for health benefits.

  • Almond & Sesame oils are delicious for Asian stir-fry.


"The greatest gastronomic glory of Lucca is its olive oil, the finest in Italy." (The Food of Italy by Waverly Root)

~Gourmet Olive Oil~


Unrefined oils, such as EVOO, each have their own distinctive flavor profile. Whether hailing from Italy, France, Spain or Chile, they are often packaged in bottles as sexy as the oils within. Note some descriptions, not much different from those found on your favorite wine bottles:

"Buttery and smooth with a building bite of pepper in the finish, there are floral notes in its aroma along with herbs and grass. Rich on the tongue, it goes with anything: salads, pasta or even steak."

"It has a pleasing citrus aroma with notes of warm spice, grass and green apple. Its lively olive flavor is very fruity this year, even more than in the past, and finishes with that great green olive bitterness and a bit of a peppery kick."

"The current vintage is colored rich gold, smells softly of wet grass and has flavor that starts buttery, builds to a very mild pepper, then fades slowly, smoothly, leaving your tongue a little tingly."

These oils are best drizzled on leafy salads, steamed veggies, grilled meats and crusty Italian breads so their exquisite flavor can be savored. Check out zingermans.com for more information.


making vinaigrette
making vinaigrette
5 stars from 5 ratings of Garden Salad Vinaigrette

Ina Garten's Vinaigrette

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced
  • 3 Tablespoons champagne vinegar
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • kosher salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste
  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, garlic, vinegar, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. While whisking, slowly add the olive oil until the vinaigrette is emulsified.
  2. Place salad greens in a medium bowl and add enough dressing to moisten. Sprinkle with a little extra salt and pepper, if desired, and serve immediately.

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    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      2 years ago from Peru, South America

      That´s a good question The Dirt Farmer. Butter has the same smoke point as coconut oil, 350 F. So it all depends on how hot the pan gets and which oil you use to saute the vegetables. As far as flavor goes, I agree that butter is a good choice for low-temp sautees.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      2 years ago from United States

      When sauteeing mushrooms or onions or diced vegetables for gravy, I usually use a mix of oil and butter, thinking that the butter will add flavor while the oil will stand the heat without hitting the smoke point. Is this a good idea?

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      RTalloni, thanks so much for the pin...I learned a lot when I researched for this Hub and ever since, I'm very careful about which oils I use for high-heat cooking. I appreciate your comment, too.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 

      5 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks for this look at choosing cooking oils, you've packed it with helpful info, and for the vinaigrette recipe. It is important to know our cooking oils and you've provided an interesting guide. Pinning to my Ways w/ Food: Assorted Info.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Ktrapp, I'm glad this information will be useful for sauteeing. There is an art to it! Yes, the dressing is simple but delicious and elegant. Thanks for your comment.

    • ktrapp profile image

      Kristin Trapp 

      5 years ago from Illinois

      This was really helpful information. I was not aware that different oils had different smoke points. Since I have just gotten into learning how to sautee properly, this is information I can most definitely use. The dressing recipe looks simple and delicious; I've never used champagne vinegar before - can't wait to try it.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Au fait, I'm glad you found this information useful. I still refer to it when choosing an oil. Thanks!

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      5 years ago from North Texas

      Information everyone needs to have and to keep handy for reference!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Blissful Writer, I noticed you site Wikipedia. Their chart shows both corn and canola oil with high enough smoke points to be safe for cooking. It also lists coconut oil with a low smoke point. Although the smoke points are often debated, I choose not to use coconut oil for high heat cooking. Also, Europeans have used olive oil for high heat cooking for many decades, so even that point is up for debate. However, I choose not to use EVOO for high heat cooking.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Thank you for the info, BlissfulWriter! I also use coconut oil, especially in baking and when I make granola. I'll check out this information.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Rajan Jolly, I'm glad you found this information and chart useful. I have it posted on my refrigerator and sometimes refer to it when in doubt, although my main kitchen supplies of oils usually consists of olive oil, safflower oil and soy oil. Thank you for taking the time to comment and vote.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Very interesting and valid points raised about the necessity of using high smoke point oils while cooking on higher temperatures. The smoke point chart that you provide along with the recommendations chart is indeed very useful. Gave 5 stars.

      Voted up, useful and sharing the hub.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Unknown spy, we live right where they produce olive oil in Peru so it's cheap here. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

    • unknown spy profile image

      IAmForbidden 

      5 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

      that was great! I used pure vegetable oil now..budget for olive oil is too heavy! :) thanks for these amazing read.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Marcy, I learned a lot when researching for this hub. If you're roasting at 350F, olive oil is just fine. But if in doubt, it's better to switch to an oil with a higher smoke point like sunflower or soy. They say soy is the best for light frying. It is absorbed less by food, too, which is why it's the oil of choice for Japanese chefs who do tempura. Thank you for coming by and I'm glad this could be of help to you!

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      5 years ago from Planet Earth

      Such a helpful hub! I did not know of the bad effects of using EVOO at high temps. I use it for all sauté cooking and I brush it over veggies when I roast them. I need to check the temps on those - I always sauté with moderate to low heat, but the oven is pretty hot when I roast veggies. Thanks for this piece! Voted up and up!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      5 years ago from Peru, South America

      Millionaire Tips, researching for this hub also moved me to make some changes in cooking! I now use a sunflower oil that's good for high temp cooking when necessary, although EVOO is always my favorite for most uses. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

    • Millionaire Tips profile image

      Shasta Matova 

      5 years ago from USA

      This is a very helpful guide for choosing cooking oil. The table was especially helpful. I am going to have to change the way I use oil! Vote dup.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      MamaKim, I learned a lot researching for this hub. Thank you for the visit!

    • Mama Kim 8 profile image

      Sasha Kim 

      6 years ago

      A wonderful and extremity helpful guide to cooking oils. It is definitely important to know the smoke point. Voted up and shared!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Molometer, I'm glad you found this information useful. I agree that lard is not a healthy choice for cooking. Although it extends the shelf-life of baked goods and tastes delicious, it clogs arteries. Sunflower is a good choice in the UK since you can't find canola. Sunflower oil is high in polyunsaturated fats and has a light, subtle taste and a high smoke point, making it a versatile cooking oil. Be sure and buy high oleic sunflower oil, as the regular variety is high in saturated fat. Thank you for your meaningful comment.

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      I have been using EVOO and peanut oil for many years now. I was relieved to know that I am using them at the right temperature. Thanks for putting this together.

      When we were in SA we could get Canola oil which was great for making home made chili oil. I haven't been able to find it in the UK. Have you an alternative oil, that I could use.

      I recall when I was a kid 'nobody' in the UK used olive oil. Mostly we used lard.

      Strangely Lard is making a comeback. I believe that Lard is a hard fat and very unhealthy.

      'What is cooking oil', is an excellent resource hub which I will bookmark it for future reference.

      Voted up interesting and useful. Sharing.

    • kohuether profile image

      Katherine Olga Tsoukalas 

      6 years ago from New Hampshire

      I have never had Peruvian olive oil - I bet it's lovely. It's much easier for me to get European olive oil since I live in Germany at the moment. ;-) And, you're welcome!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Kohuether, Cretian olive oil sounds wonderful! I also enjoy olive oil. It's cheap here because it's produced in this part of Peru. On the rare occasion I'm able to enjoy an imported olive oil from Europe, it's a real treat! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

    • kohuether profile image

      Katherine Olga Tsoukalas 

      6 years ago from New Hampshire

      I use olive oil all the time when I cook and it is a staple for me. This was a very helpful article! My favorite olive oil comes from Crete and this is likely because I like Crete so much. :-)

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Alocsin, I also love olive oil and use it most of the time, except when frying or grilling at high temperatures. Thanks for the vote and comment.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 

      6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I'm a big fan of olive oil, but you've pointed out some info that I didn't know about, such as the smoke point. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      I'm glad you enjoyed the information, Peggy W, and am happy to hear you have such healthful eating habits in your home. Thank you for commenting!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 years ago from Houston, Texas

      We use the different types of olive oil in our home almost exclusively but never deep fat fry anything. I found this article to be useful and interesting and voting it so. Thanks!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      You're welcome, Angela Brummer. Thank you for stopping by!

    • Angela Brummer profile image

      Angela Brummer 

      6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

      I had always wondered this? Thanks for sharing beautiful hub!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Thank you for coming by, articlesking, and for the follow!

    • articlesking profile image

      articlesking 

      6 years ago from London

      Very useful article. vote up.

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      I'm glad you found this hub informative, Olde Cashmere. It's always nice to hear from you.

    • profile image

      Olde Cashmere 

      6 years ago

      I learned a lot from this hub and thank for you laying out such great detail. I'm going to utilize this information from now on and improve my cooking. Rated 5, useful, interesting, and awesome :)

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Jackie Lynnley, I hope you enjoy the vinaigrette and I'm happy you already enjoy the benefits of EVOO. Thank you for coming by and commenting!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Rochelle Frank, I'm happy to hear you enjoy the benefits of EVOO. Yes, grapeseed oil is praised its neutral flavor and high smoke point. Thank you for stopping by and I'm glad you found the information useful!

    • vespawoolf profile imageAUTHOR

      vespawoolf 

      6 years ago from Peru, South America

      Rebeccamealey, I still have a place in my diet for butter. After all, what would scones be without it?! Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This is a totally awesome explanation of the different fats. I think we need a little of them all. Even butter, or omega-6s give us some health benefits, like blood clotting. Voted up and Shared for sure. Great Hub!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you for the detailed information. I have printed it out to use for reference.

      I use EVOO only for dressings and other raw uses. Quite a while ago I changed to grapeseed oil for sauté at high heat and browning uses-- it was quite a bit cheaper than olive oil, but the best thing was that it did not smoke up the house.

      Though my palate is not too sensitive, I cannot detect any flavor in the grapeseed oil... but that is fine. it does the job and there are other ways to add flavor.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      6 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Sounds like a great dressing. I have heard many cooks say olive oil is not good for deep frying. I rarely use anything but EVOO, but I never deep fry anything anymore.

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