Supermarkets these days have a vast array of products on their shelves. Cooking oil is a typical example where the choice is ample. Plus, it tends not to be really straightforward which one to choose and why. Being an avid home cook, I faced the dilemma of choosing the right cooking oil myself, so I did a bit of research to be able to make an informed choice in the matter.
Just a Bit of Science
It is important to understand some basic features of cooking oils, which may sound a bit scientific. Nonetheless, it is not too complicated as we only need to understand a few basic features and principles of fats and fatty acids, as cooking oils are made up of these compounds.
Fatty acids differ based on their chemical shapes. Generally, depending on their shapes, fatty acids can be saturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. All fats contain all types of fatty acids, but they are classified into one of the above categories based on the type of the fatty acid that makes up most of its structure. Fatty acids differ from each other based on how well they pack together. Saturated fatty acids pack together tightly. This feature makes them stable even if they are exposed to heat and light. Monounsaturated fatty acids do not pack together as well as their saturated counterparts do. Therefore, their stability level is lower when they are exposed to heat and light. The polyunsaturated fatty acids don’t pack together well at all, therefore they are unstable.
The stability level of cooking oils is decisive in terms of whether they are suitable for cooking or not. Stable oils can resist chemical changes when heated to high temperatures; therefore they are suitable to cook with. However, unstable ones may go rancid when heated up, which means that they undergo chemical decomposition and other changes. Their so-called smoke point, the heat at which they start to go rancid and a bluish smoke becomes visible, gives a good guidance whether it is suitable for cooking or not.
I collected eight of my favourite cooking oils. Let’s see why they made to the list of my top eight!
Best Cooking Oils to Use
- Almond Oil: Almond oil is stable up to approximately 255 Celsius and it is composed of a high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids (approximately 62%). It is associated with health benefits including cardiovascular health and high amount of vitamin E levels and phytosterols that are known to improve cholesterol numbers. It s suitable for cooking at high temperatures and also works well in salads and desserts because of its natural almond flavor.
- Avocado Oil: Avocado oil has a very high tolerance to heat. It can be heated up to approximately 265 Celsius. It is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and it is considered heart-healthy as it is known to improve cholesterol levels. Avocado oil is very versatile due to having high heat tolerance as well as a mild, nutty flavor. It is perfect for high heat cooking including grilling, sautéing, frying, stir-frying and baking. It works well for salad dressings, too.
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is very stable as it is 86.5% saturated fat. The saturated fat contained in this oil is different to saturated fat found in animal products. They contain medium chain triglycerides that are metabolized in a different way than animal fats and therefore they do not clog our arteries. Coconut oil was found to lower cholesterol levels as well as to maintain a healthy digestive tract. It remains stable up to 230 Celsius, which makes it ideal for frying, baking and cooking at high temperatures. Always use certified organic coconut oil, which means that it does not go through refining, hydrogenation, bleaching or deodorizing. Also, don’t be surprised to find that it is solid at room temperature.
- Red Palm Oil: Red palm oil is derived from the fruit of the palm tree. It is high in saturated fat and has a high proportion of healthy fatty acids. Also it is rich in vitamin E, Beta-Carotene, Alpha-Carotene and Coenzyme Q10. Due to its saturated fat content, it is a stable type of oil, which makes it perfect for high heat cooking. If you wish to try using red palm oil, go for brands that source the ingredient sustainably. Palm oil has courted controversy due to its potential harm to endangered rainforest environments. The palm trees from which the oil is extracted are integral to that ecosystem. Large-scale commercial activity in these settings has potential to threaten the balance in this environment.
Cooking Oils to Use with Care
Many cooking oils have a vast array of health benefits, but are not suitable for cooking at high temperatures. If you heat them to high temperatures, their nutrients can oxidize, which means the oil goes rancid. This can lead to vascular diseases and other health damages.
- Olive Oil: Olive oil, particularly its extra virgin type, is a very good source of monounsaturated fats, which is linked with hearth health. It has a range of further health benefits including lowering total blood cholesterols, being rich in antioxidants, decreasing both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, aiding blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity. There is some evidence that its consumption helps reduce obesity, the risk of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Its consumption is therefore very much recommended. However, apart from the best quality extra virgin olive oils the smoke point of which is at around 210 Celsius, its resistance of heat is not higher than 160 Celsius. Unfortunately, the very good quality extra virgin olive oils are too pricy to cook with. Therefore, olive oil is best to be spared for cooking with lower temperatures, e.g. drizzling on steamed vegetables, sautéing or in salad dressings.
- Peanut Oil: Peanut oil is a good and healthy choice as it is free from cholesterol, it contains essential fatty acids, it is a good source of plant sterols that can reduce cholesterol levels and it contains vitamin E as well as resveratrol, which is associated with protective function against a range of diseases including cancer. It also has a nice, nutty aroma and a sweet taste. It is good for all sorts of cooking and it is particularly suitable for Asian recipes. Nonetheless, use it sparingly, as it is richer in Omega 6 fatty acids than in Omega 3 fatty acids. While both of these fatty acids are necessary for human health, the Western diet tends to create an imbalance between the two, in the favour of Omega 6 fatty acids. Also, if you have peanut allergy, be careful with it, especially with the cold-pressed versions, which may contain allergens.
- Sesame Seed Oil: Sesame seed oil has a number of health benefits including reducing blood pressure and the risk of health disease. It is cholesterol friendly, too. It contains sesamol and sesamin, two powerful antioxidants. It is a good choice for low-heat cooking, sautéing and low-heat baking due to its high smoke point. It is one of the cooking oils that are less prone to go rancid. It is best for sautéing, low-heat cooking and baking and due to its nice and light flavor, it is good in stir-fries, too. It is excellent for Chinese, Indian and South-East Asian recipes.
- Walnut Oil: Walnut oil is a healthy choice for low heat cooking. As it contains 63 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids, it is not a very stable oil for cooking. Heating rapidly reduces its quality and also damages its flavor by producing a bit of a bitter taste. It is best to used in salads, where its delicate nutty flavor adds a great taste. Alternatively, use it on steamed vegetables, marinades and sautés.
Cooking Oils to Avoid
I did not list commonly used vegetable oils like sunflower oil, canola oil, rapeseed oil and corn oil among my favourite cooking oils. The reason for that is that these types of commercial oils tend to be partially hydrogenated or refined. This process is known to create trans fats that are unhealthy for human health. Also, often these oils are made from genetically modified crops. Vegetable oils tend to be richer in Omega 6 fatty acids than in Omega 3 fatty acids, therefore they need to be consumed sparingly to avoid imbalances in the diet.
Flaxeed oil, hemp oil and hazelnut oil did not make it to my favourite oils, either. While they have excellent health benefits, they are too delicate to cook with. They can be used in salad dressings and in dips and should be consumed in their cold form.
A Final Word of Advice
As cooking oils are delicate substances, some of which can go rancid even if they are exposed to light and air, always buy them in small quantities, keep their lid on when not using and store them in cool, dark and dry places.