Flaxseed, walnut, olive, peanut, avocado…with the seemingly endless parade of cooking oils on supermarket shelves, it’s no wonder people are confused about which to choose for their sautés and stir-fries. To help you make sense of the options, we’ve put together a straightforward guide so you’ll know exactly which trusty oil to grab the next time you’re working your kitchen magic.
First, all cooking oils are high in calories and fat, delivering about 120 calories and 14 grams of total fat per tablespoon. They differ in their mix of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), with PUFAs providing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
So, which oils are healthier? Oils high in omega-3s (such as walnut and flaxseed) top Registered Dietitian Elle Penner’s list, since evidence shows they may support heart health. Almond, avocado, olive, and coconut oils also get high marks. That said, the best choice for your health is striking a balance.
“A diet that includes a variety of quality oils with saturated, mono- and polyunsaturated fats,” Penner stresses, “will offer the most nutrition and health benefits.”
Oils’ production methods also factor into the health equation. Penner recommends using cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils when possible; these can be pricier but yield a cleaner, purer, and more nutritionally intact oil.
Solvent-expelled oils, in contrast, “tend to be highly refined, which negatively impacts nutritional quality,” Penner says. They’re also extracted from the plant using chemicals, some of which may remain in the oil. Highly refined, solvent-expressed oils can include canola, palm, safflower, peanut, and soybean or “vegetable” oil.
In addition to nutrition and flavor, an oil’s smoke point — the temperature at which it starts to smoke and break down — helps determine whether you’ll use it for high-heat searing and frying, or save it for no-cook dressings and drizzling over finished dishes. If your oil does start smoking, throw it out to avoid toxic fumes and byproducts.
Oils with the highest smoke points (400°F and above) include: safflower, rice bran, light olive, soybean, peanut, corn, sunflower, vegetable, and canola.
Does your oil smell or taste bitter, or is otherwise “off”? Don’t try to stretch it a few more sauces. The nutrient value of oils decrease when they go rancid.
Since oils are sensitive to light, air, and heat, store them in cool, dark places such as a cupboard away from the stove. Delicate varieties — such as walnut, flaxseed, and grapeseed — go rancid more quickly and should be kept in the fridge.
Ready to get cooking? Read on for more nutritional notes and cooking tips for more than a dozen oils.