So many cooking oils, so little time to research them all

October 06, 2016

Are you overwhelmed by the choices in cooking oils? Here are the basics you need to know.

There are so many new oils on the supermarket shelf today. But many of the basics still stand. Here are the top four things shoppers need to know: smoke point, taste when cooked, health and storage.

Smoking Point: When choosing an oil for cooking foods, it's important to know its “high smoking point", which is the culinary description for the temperature an oil can be heated before it discolors and smokes, both indications of decomposition of the oil and signs unhealthy compounds may have been created. You always want to avoid heating oil until it smokes.

Oils with a high smoking point are those that can reach above 400°F.  Examples of oils with high smoke points are avocado oil (the highest at 520°F), soybean oil (450-495°F), refined safflower oil (450°F), Palm oil (446 °F), and refined peanut oils, regular and high oleic sunflower oils (450°F). Rice bran oil, popular in Japanese restaurants, is similar in composition to soybean and peanut oils.

Grapeseed, cottonseed, virgin olive oil, and almond oil have smoking points from 420 to 440°F. Although using extra virgin olive oil (370°F) is not recommended for high heat cooking. Canola oil (rapeseed) has a smoking point of 400°F.

Another great oil for cooking is unrefined virgin coconut oil (solid at room temp) (350 °F) which imparts a faint coconut flavor but boasts many health promoting properties. Sesame oil unrefined 350°F, refined 450°F are also great for cooking Asian inspired dishes; unrefined sesame oil is also great to add after cooking for wonderful flavor. For dressing a salad, extra virgin olive oil, unrefined flax oil (225°F), avocado, pecan and walnut oil are great choices.

Taste: The second criteria to consider when choosing oil for cooking is how will it affect the taste of the food. This is purely subjective and personal although most professional chefs have their preferences.

Best for Health:  There is no such thing as the perfect oil, but some are certainly better than others. The proportions of each type of fats is important and opting for those with poly or monounsaturated fats (like olive oil) are considered good choices. Plant based saturated fats from unrefined coconut oil are considered safe, by many health professionals, when used in moderation. As for cholesterol, all plant-based oils are naturally cholesterol-free, only animal oils and fats contain cholesterol.

All oils are 100 percent fat and all are high in calories: approximately 120 calories per tablespoon. For sautéing, (pasture raised) butter or olive oil or a combination of the two, are great on the palate and easy on the diet when used judiciously. To be even more cautious, use manual spray bottles of oil to better control the quantity of oils used for cooking. 

Storage: Refined oils high in monounsaturated fats can keep their flavor and consistency for a year if kept in the refrigerator. Those high in polyunsaturated fats like canola oil should last about six months under refrigeration. Extra virgin and virgin oils can keep their freshness for about a year and do not need refrigeration. Nut oils become rancid quickly; always refrigerate after opening. For most other oils, store in a cool dark cupboard, away from the oven and stove. Although the temptation is great to re-use fats and oils, especially the more expensive ones, it's more healthful to use them once and discard any residue.