How To Choose The Right Cooking Oil
It's hard to get very far in the kitchen without cooking oil. These liquid fats derived from plants are used in all sorts of foods and cooking techniques such as sautéing mushrooms for a pizza topping to starting off a beef stew. But how do you decide which cooking oil is best for the job? That is up to key components such as smoke point, fat composition and flavor.
The first thing to consider is an oil's smoke point which refers to its tolerance to heat. Oils that might be healthy at room temperature might not be healthy when heated. Therefore, oils with low heat tolerance are not suitable for frying or cooking at high temperatures. Cooking oils that can be used for such purposes and that have a high smoke point include: canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and some olive oils. Cooking oils with lower smoke points can include safflower oil, corn oil, extra virgin olive oil and sesame oil. Depending on the production process, smoke points can vary within each type of oil.
The importance of knowing an oil's smoke point is so that you do not exceed it. Not only can burning oils release harmful toxins into your food, they can also introduce trans fats, throwing all potential health benefits of that cooking oil out of the saucepan.
As we know, oils are a form of fat. But one thing to consider when choosing the right cooking oil is: what kinds of fat does it contain? Let's split the types of fat into three categories from best to worst: unsaturated fats, saturated fats and trans fats. What's great about cooking oil is that it contains a lot of unsaturated fats which are good for you and can lower your risk of heart disease and cancer. Some cooking oils do contain some saturated fats however. While it's best to avoid saturated fat when possible, presence of saturated fat can be remedied by the presence of unsaturated fat. According to Harvard School of Public Health, we should "choose healthy fats, limit saturated fat and avoid trans fats." While saturated fats and trans fats can increase risk for disease, unsaturated fats such as polyunsaturated or monounsaturated can help lower this risk. That said, regardless of the fat composition, nutritionists contend that any vegetable-derived oil will have better-for-you fats than butter or shortening, or fats that come from animals. Keeping this in mind while choosing the right cooking oil can help you obtain the maximum health benefits from your cooking.
While most cooking oils have a neutral taste allowing them to simply be a means for cooking, other cooking oils have adopted the flavor of their parent ingredient. Peanut oil is most popular for taking on a peanutty flavor while canola oil is known for its neutral taste. That said, when choosing your cooking oil, make sure you are aware of the flavor it produces in food. If you're looking for a means to saute some vegetables but don't want any extra flavor, canola oil might be a good choice. But if you plan on using your cooking oil to add flavor to your dish, choose an oil like peanut oil or sesame oil. Asian cuisine is known for highlighting sesame oil in many of its dishes because of the rich nutty flavor it adds.
Comparing Popular Cooking Oils
Smoke Point: 400 degrees F (for refined variety), can be used for light sauteing, low-heat baking and sauces
Fat Composition: 62% Monounsaturated, 31% Polyunsaturated, 7% Saturated
Flavor: Mild, neutral, a "blank slate" for cooking
Originally made in Canada, the name 'canola oil' is an acronym of its official title "Canadian oil, low acid". That being said, the phrase canola oil is actually redundant since the "o" stands for oil. Canola is a version of rapeseed oil that is much less acidic and therefore fit for human consumption. It has a very neutral taste and is low in saturated fat. It can be used in baking, sauteing, frying, you name it. While canola oil does have decent health benefits, it is often considered unhealthy due to the foods it is associated with.
Recipes That Use Canola Oil:
Soybean Oil Often Referred to as "Vegetable Oil"
Smoke Point: 495 degrees F, can be used for frying and high heat sauteing
Fat Composition: 25% Monounsaturated, 60% Polyunsaturated, 15% Saturated
Flavor: Mild and neutral, takes on the flavor of the dish
The term vegetable oil is not actually a specific kind of oil but the grocery store bottles most commonly labeled as vegetable oil are actually filled with soybean oil. This often cheap type of oil is common in pantries as it can be used in high heat cooking and has a very neutral taste. However, the health benefits of soybean oil and most vegetable oils are minimal. This oil has the lowest content of monounsaturated fat which is the healthiest of the three categories.
Recipes That Use Vegetable Oil:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Smoke Point: 320 degrees F for extra virgin, other olive oils have higher smoke points and can be used for baking, crisp sauteing, stir frying and oven cooking
Fat Composition: 78% Monounsaturated, 8% Polyunsaturated, 14% Saturated
Flavor: Fruity and Aromatic, sometimes "Peppery"
Olive oil comes in a whole sloe of varieties from light to extra virgin. Each of these identifying labels define the manner in which the olive oil was produced. All virgin olive oils have been produced without chemical treatment and therefore have more nutrients and flavor. Lighter (refined oils) have had chemical treatment to get rid of stronger flavors that can sometimes be considered bitter. Refining is a process for oil in general but when it comes to olive oil, many of us prefer virgin production. The term "extra virgin" typically refers to the first press of the olives and therefore contains the strongest nutrients and flavor. This is considered to be the highest quality of olive oil.
There is contention as to whether or not you can cook safely with olive oil. Due to the varying types of olive oil, it is hard to give olive oil a generic smoke point. Extra virgin olive oil has a much lower smoke point than light olive oil. Therefore while extra virgin olive oil might have more flavor and nutrients, it can not be used as safely for sauteing and cooking as light olive oil. You can however use extra virgin olive oil in sauces and baking, but be careful not to turn your heat up too high when stir frying or sauteing with extra virgin olive oil.
Recipes That Use Olive Oil:
Smoke Point: 440 degrees F (Medium-High), Can be used for baking, crisp sauteing, stir frying and oven cooking
Fat Composition: 48% Monounsaturated, 34% Polyunsaturated, 18% Saturated
Flavor: Mild nutty flavor and aroma (similar to peanuts)
Peanut oil is known for its high smoke point and ability to fry potatoes and chicken. It is most comparable to canola oil and olive oil but has less nutritional benefits than its counterparts. Dishes cooked with peanut oil however do gain a mild nutty flavor from the cooking process that many people enjoy. Peanut oil can also be referred to as groundnut oil in some Asian countries.
Recipes That Use Peanut Oil:
Smoke Point: 410 degrees F, (Medium) Can be used for light sauteing, low-heat baking and sauces
Fat Composition: 41% Monounsaturated, 44% Polyunsaturated, 15% Saturated
Flavor: Nutty, rich aroma
Also known as til oil or gingelly oil, sesame oil is very popular in Asian cooking. Pressed from sesame seeds, this flavorful oil is more delicate than other oils and shouldn't be used for any high heat cooking.
Recipes That Use Sesame Oil:
Refrigeration and Storage
Many oils can be left in the pantry or out in room temperature without turning rancid. However, to increase the shelf life of your oils, it might be best to refrigerate them. While the texture and thickness of the oil will change when cooled, a few minutes at room temperature will bring the oil back to its normal appearance. Sesame oil is best known for its ability to be left out in the open without turning rancid due to its high composition of polyunsaturated fat but experts encourage refrigerating all other oils that do not contain high levels of saturated or polyunsaturated fats to be safe and preserve shelf life.
Conclusion: So What Should I Buy?
At Recipe4Living, we would recommend stocking multiple varieties of cooking oil in your pantry (or refrigerator). Here are the three we would choose: 1. Canola oil - your high heat cooking oil, 2 Extra virgin olive oil - for low heat sauteing (and of course room temperature applications!) and last but not least 3. Sesame oil - to add flavor to your dishes without sacrificing nutrition.
Sources: Harvard School of Public Health
More Cooking Resources: Healthy Cooking and Baking Cooking and Preparation Terms Glossary Food Storage Guidelines