There are many choices out there for cooking oils. Some of this is, literally, a matter of personal taste. If you don’t like the taste of olive oil then you will look at alternatives.
It also depends on what you will use the oil for. Some oils are best drizzled, others are great in the pan, a few are best for the wok.
This is an in depth guide, but read it and you will become the envy of your friends with your knowledge of cooking oils!
If you can’t be bothered to read the whole guide, jump to the end to get the detail on what I use.
Do you even need a cooking oil?
Most of the time, it is better to use an oil to help you cook. Personally I think the question is more how much than yes or no.
With cast iron cookware you probably need quite a bit of oil for example.
What does a good cooking oil look like?
Let’s look at some of the evidence out there around fats and oils.
Oil is fat
Oil is a form of fat and has saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Fat intake isn’t the problem people used to think, though there is still some evidence that saturated fat is bad.
In fact not all saturated fat is the same. A 2017 study shows some that saturated fat can increase the risk of heart disease. Yet another study shows dairy products with saturated fat can decrease the risk of heart disease. Of course it may be the other components of dairy products that are contributing.
There is evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat could have health benefits.
It’s certainly not the case that all fat is bad, or even as clear cut as all saturated fat is bad.
I won’t even go into the different types of unsaturated fat!
In this guide I will make the assumption that unsaturated fat is better than saturated fat. I don’t think this is 100% proven but there is some evidence out there.
However, the % saturated fat is not a slam dunk – it’s an indicator to take into account.
Fats and Refined Carbohydrates
One of the things that annoys me is food manufacturers substituting fat for sugar and claiming some sort of health benefit. I feel that they’ve made the food less healthy!
Indeed, the evidence is that replacing saturated fat with refined carbs doesn’t reduce the risk of heart disease.
Transfats are bad. Much worse than saturated fats! This is ironic because for many years people were eating margarine (high transfats) instead of butter (high saturated fats). They did this believing it was healthier. Actually butter is healthier than margarine.
It’s also the case that some cooking oils may have higher trans fats.
This isn’t really a ranking competition but I would prefer saturated fat to transfats any day.
So I do suggest you avoid oils high in trans fats.
Moving on to something nicer: Oleic Acid, also known as Omega 9. This is a fatty acid that appears in many oils.
I haven’t seen anything conclusive, but there is supportive evidence of oleic acid health benefits. These include a reduction in coronary heart disease. This evidence is enough for the FDA to allow qualified health claims.
So there is a good chance oils high in oleic acid are good for you. Olive oil is one such example.
Some manufacturers are coming up with “high oleic acid” versions of oils which are not normally high in oleic acid. This means they are adding processing steps to the oil. I’m not convinced by this as I would have thought it better to use a naturally high oleic acid oil. But I’m not aware of any evidence either way.
Omega 3 and Omega 6
To cut a long story short:
- Your body needs both omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids
- Too much omega 6 can be bad
- Western diets tend to have too much omega 6 and not enough omega 3
So, it’s better to have oils with more omega 3 instead of omega 6, but that also depends on the rest of your diet.
Cholesterol in the body can be bad – although there are different types. Some are good, some are bad. Eating cholesterol doesn’t really affect the body’s cholesterol level though.
So cholesterol in food, or oil, isn’t a concern for me.
Smoking Point and Stability
The smoking point of an oil is the temperature it starts to “smoke” and break down. It’s OK for the oil to gently sizzle, but it shouldn’t produce smoke. This is because the products it breaks down into, when smoking, are not healthy and don’t taste nice.
What’s more if the oil is smoking it may be approaching its flash point. The flash point is when it catches fire and is obviously very dangerous.
It is more complicated than that though! The stability of the oil also matters and isn’t the same as the smoke point. So the oil could break down if left heating too long, even if under its smoke point.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a medium smoke point but very high stability.
Purity and Processing
Whatever oil you are getting, always look at the ingredients. It’s worth checking for additives. Ideally the oil should be pure (eg 100% olive oil).
Also, generally speaking, it’s better to have unprocessed than processed or refined.
Looking after cooking oil
Oils will degrade over time and go rancid. This means they don’t taste nice and become unhealthy.
To avoid this, the best place to store them is a cool, dark place, which means, for example:
- In a closed cupboard so they don’t get light (especially sunlight)
- Not near anything warm (eg the oven)
You will need to refrigerate some oils.
It’s also better to use oils as quickly as possible. The ideal is to buy often and little. This isn’t something I always do as I sometimes get a large “tin” of olive oil which I decant into bottles as the need arises.
Which Oils are best
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The best oil is undoubtedly extra virgin olive oil. It is high in oleic acids, low in saturated fats and recommended as part of the mediterranean diet.
“Extra virgin” means that the oil is the first oil pressed from the olive and hasn’t undergone processing. It’s the purest, healthiest olive oil there is.
I regularly use extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO as it is sometimes abbreviated). What’s more, yes, you can cook and fry with it! In fact it’s a super healthy oil for cooking with since EVOO is incredibly stable at high temperatures.
I even use EVOO instead of butter – drizzling it on bread or just about anything!
For me, EVOO is the ultimate super food.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil does have a couple of things you need to watch out for.
Firstly it shouldn’t be used above 207°C (405°F). This is the smoke point of high quality EVOO – the point when it breaks down and becomes nasty. This is actually quite high for things like frying so you should be OK. Lower quality EVOO may have a lower smoke point.
If you are stir frying or searing then you might need to be more careful. For these I would choose an alternative.
Still, because of its stability it’s one of the best oils to cook and fry with, as long as you stay below its smoke point.
The second thing to watch out for is that not everything labelled extra virgin olive oil is really extra virgin. Some companies appear to be incorrectly labelling olive oil as extra virgin when it isn’t.
These companies may not be deliberately misleading you. EVOO can degrade over time and when exposed to heat or light.
This is difficult to overcome but the best ways are:
- Buy trustworthy brands (google them first if need be), pay extra for quality.
- Don’t buy extra virgin olive oil that has been in the light (ideally get it from the back of the bottom shelf)
- If possible avoid buying olive oil in clear glass bottles (as the oil has had increased exposure to light)
- Check the best before date (it should be a long time in the future)
- If available check the olive harvest date (you want it as recent as possible)
Olive Oil (Refined / not extra virgin)
No doubt extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the best, but standard olive oil, even refined olive oil, can be healthy.
It also normally has a higher smoke point, so can be used in higher temperature cooking.
The other “advantage” of refined olive oil is that it tends to not taste as strong. Since I love the taste of olive oil – this isn’t an advantage for me! But if you can’t stand the taste of EVOO, consider refined olive oil.
Avocado Oil is a close runner up, and even a winner when it comes to high heat.
It’s low in saturated fat, tastes delicious and has a high smoke point, higher than extra virgin olive oil.
What’s more it has a similar stability as extra virgin olive oil at high heat.
It’s also creamy and delicious, providing a nice alternative flavoring to olive oil.
What’s not to like? Well mainly that is so incredibly expensive and hard to get.
I would recommend avocado oil for high temperature cooking like stir frying or searing. It can also be a nice occasional treat in salads. Whatever happens, use it sparingly or it will empty your bank account!
Flaxseed oil is a fragile oil that easily goes bad. You need to keep it in the refrigerator and use it quickly.
I actually recommend it for seasoning cast iron.
You could always use it in salads – it’s an alternative to extra virgin olive oil.
Forget about using it for cooking – the low smoke point rules that out.
If you do use it, make sure you get the pure stuff with none of the additives!
There are different types of sunflower oil. The healthiest is the high oleic acid sunflower oil. If you can get this type of it could be a good alternative to olive oil when cooking at high temperatures. It has a smoke point of at least 225°C (440°F).
It’s high in Vitamin E and low in unsaturated fat. I’d be happy to use this oil, especially in high temperature cooking.
Coconut Oil is a little bit controversial, though maybe it shouldn’t be.
It does very well at high heat cooking. This is because it is stable and long lasting at room temperature and has a high smoke point.
What’s more, it has a distinct, subtle and nice flavor. It brings something to the party when you cook with it.
Where it falls down is that it is very high in saturated fat. There is evidence that replacing it with unsaturated fats could be healthier. This isn’t as bad as it seems. In fact the same study shows that it’s still healthier than butter!
So if you are going to have some saturated fat in your diet, using a small amount of coconut oil for high heat cooking occasionally doesn’t seem too bad.
I would suggest using extra virgin olive oil instead where you can though.
Saffower oil is tasteless and boring. I don’t use it.
That being said, it is a healthy oil. It is low in saturated fats and has many health benefits. It also has a very high smoke point so you could use it in high temperature cooking.
Canola Oil (also called Rapeseed Oil)
Canola Oil is OK. It’s low in unsaturated fat and has a relatively high smoke point. I don’t have any particular reason to recommend it though.
Sesame oil is often used when cooking Asian food for the flavor.
It has lowish unsaturated fat (EVOO is better!) It’s not unhealthy, but nor is it anything special.
It has a high smoke point so can be used in high temperature cooking. Potentially great for wok cooking.
There isn’t much out there about grapeseed oil. It is high in unsaturated fat, which is a good thing.
It has a mild flavor so it can be used when you want to bring out the flavor of the underlying food.
I’ve never used it, but I have no objection to it.
Peanut oil is middling in terms of saturated fat. Less than coconut oil, or butter, but more than olive oil or avocado oil.
It’s not a problem to use it, but there are no signs it has the health benefits of olive oil!
It has a strong, nutty aroma and can withstand a high heat. I could see it being used in wok cooking.
Walnut oil is a nutty tasting oil that you can use in salads. It has a low smoke point so you can’t use it to cook with.
You could use it occasionally to add a bit of flavor to a salad.
Keep it refrigerated.
Fish oil is high in omega 3 and very healthy. That said you can’t use it in cooking as it will break down since it isn’t very stable.
Generally it’s used as a supplement. Vegans could use flaxseed oil instead.
I prefer to get fish oil from the source and include a healthy amount of fish in my family’s diet.
Butter got a bad rep at one point and indeed it isn’t the healthiest fat around. But it’s better than margarine, and other alternatives.
I would recommend using olive oil instead of butter where possible, but occasionally using to grease a pan or butter some toast isn’t too bad. Just don’t do it all the time!
Please avoid these oils
Palm oil is high in saturated fat, but less so than coconut oil. It has no transfats and could be healthier than butter.
Why is it on my list of oils to avoid then?
First I’ll just say – I haven’t done an environmental impact study on these oils in general. I’ve focused on use and health.
But .. I still remember seeing beautiful orangutans on my honeymoon. Palm oil threatens the habitats of these magnificent creatures. I can’t bring myself to buy it, knowing the harm it could do.
If you agree with me, please be aware:
- Ethical or sustainable palm oil doesn’t directly destroy the habitat of orangutans. But, by creating a market for palm oil, buying sustainable palm oil could indirectly contribute to deforestation.
- If you want to avoid palm oil, check the ingredients of what you buy. It’s in many peanut butter jars for example. I’ve no idea why, but I always read those labels now!
Corn oil is high in saturated fat and omega 6. This means, that although it is high in Vitamin E, it isn’t particularly healthy.
It has a high smoke point, which is useful, but this likely comes from it being highly refined.
I would avoid corn oil.
I don’t have a problem with something classified as vegetable oil, but I do have a problem with something labelled “vegetable oil”.
What’s the difference?
Vegetable oil as category is broad and arguably includes olive oil.
Vegetable oil has become a convenient label for manufacturers to dump the cheapest, off cast oil into a bottle and sell it.
It would be far better to simply say what vegetable or plant it came from.
Aminal fats, like bacon droppings or lard, are high in unsaturated fat. I avoid them as much as possible.
This is why it’s healthier to grill meat, so that some of the fat leaks away.
Be careful though – if you grill your burger to reduce the fat then wrap it in a bun you may not be helping yourself.
Alternatives to Oils and Fats
If you’ve been reading carefully you’ll know that I’m actually happy to use certain oils when cooking.
Yet not everyone is. Some people prefer to use little or no oil in their cooking.
This is possible.
There is another option though. Non stick non Teflon pans. Some of them even claim not to need any oil at all!
Even if you do use oil, you can use less, and it makes the clean up easier. A nice option perhaps?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a superfood for me. I love it. I use it as much as I can, and in high quantities.
I make sure I get the good quality stuff – if you buy the cheap stuff it might not even be extra virgin. I’d rather go without something else than skimp on my olive oil.
I’m not afraid to use it in cooking or frying – I do it all the time. I’ve never had it turn rancid on me so I must be doing something right.
I don’t reuse it. One use then it’s thrown away. (By the way – don’t pour it down the sink or you risk clogging your drains). Every time you use it, it degrades – it’s certainly no longer extra virgin after the first use!
As an alternative I use avocado oil if I’m cooking at high temperatures. I also sometimes use it in salads. It’s nice to mix things up. I don’t use it much, because it’s so expensive!
I also sometimes use butter. Butter isn’t some great bogeyman to be afraid of, it’s fine to use it in moderation. If I’m baking a cake, butter is probably the best choice. I’ll look for healthy alternatives to sugar or flour, but I’m not worried about a little bit of butter.
I also occasionally use sunflower oil when cooking, but I do prefer extra virgin olive oil.