Oil is a workhorse in the kitchen, but its uses go beyond the frying pan. Different varieties can be drizzled as dressings, whipped up in baked goods, and help provide our bodies with healthy fats. Cooking oils are not one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to have options on hand, depending on what you’re preparing.
Should I choose oil over butter?
In simplest terms, butter is animal-based, while cooking oils are plant- or nut-based. Generally, butter contains more saturated fats but has a lower smoking point, while oil contains more unsaturated fats but has a higher smoking point. Nutritionists and dietitians have debated for years on which is “healthier,” but the answer, like that of many health-related questions, is “it depends.” Juli Johnson, APRN at INTEGRIS, is a proponent of certain oils as well as clarified butter, or ghee.
“I recommend cutting out all refined oils except extra virgin olive oil,” Johnson says. “When cooking, use extra virgin coconut oil and avocado oil (which can be used at higher temperatures because these are highly stable oils), and even ghee (clarified butter). Ghee has a higher smoking point at 400˚ to 500˚F and provides the same nutrients in grass-fed butter, such as cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Ghee and butter are also high in vitamins D and A, omega-3 fats, and butyric acid, which can boost immunity and help inflammation, as well as protect against colon cancer,” Johnson says.
Why proper storage of oils is important
“Storage and shelf life are crucial with cooking oils,” Johnson says. “Store oils in dark, not clear, bottles and keep them in a cool, dark place away from light and heat. Don’t store oils on kitchen counters or next to the stove. Always close the lid tightly and immediately store oils after using them because oxygen contributes to rancidity. Oils go bad over a span of months depending on the type, so I recommend only purchasing the amount you will actually use within two months,” Johnson says.
What about those watching their cholesterol?
“The good fats in foods like avocado oil, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, wild-caught fish, nuts, and seeds can improve the type and quantity of cholesterol in your body,” Johnson says. “Besides healthy fats, focus on a high-fiber, plant-based diet with a lot of phytonutrients and omega-3 fats.”
Cooking oils to consider stocking in your kitchen
“Extra virgin olive oil is my main cooking oil,” Johnson says. “I also use coconut oil and some ghee (clarified butter). I try and avoid safflower and sunflower oils, corn oil, cotton seed oil and vegetable oils, and strictly avoid margarine, vegetable shortening and all products listing them as ingredients. In general, I tell patients to avoid products with partially hydrogenated oils and products made with refined soybean oil.”
In this list, we’re highlighting a few of the vast array of cooking oils available. When choosing which kinds to stock in your kitchen, be mindful of the saturated and unsaturated fat content and avoid trans fats wherever possible. As with anything high in fat and in calories, moderation is important.
Coconut oil has certainly enjoyed the spotlight these last few years. It can serve as a butter substitute for baking and sautéing and can be used topically for personal care. Coconut oil has gotten some backlash recently from the American Heart Association because of its high saturated fat content, so keep in mind that a little goes a long way.
A staple in most kitchens, olive oil is praised for its heart-healthy fats, and it has enough flavor to work as a standalone salad dressing and for sautéing at low heats. However, extra-virgin olive oil has a low smoke point, so it’s not ideal to use for frying or searing.
“Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, and research shows monounsaturated fats help keep ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol low and boost levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol,” Johnson explains. “In addition, extra-virgin olive oil is high in antioxidants called polyphenols that have been linked to heart health. ‘Pure’ olive oil (i.e., not virgin) doesn’t contain these ‘bonus’ antioxidants.”
Canola oil contains less saturated fat than any other common cooking oil and works for baking and pan-frying.
Vegetable oil is not made from one specific vegetable, but rather, is a mixture of plant-based oils, sometimes including sunflower or soybean oils. Johnson recommends staying away from vegetable oil if possible.
A by-product of winemaking, grapeseed oil has a clean, neutral taste that works well as a light salad dressing. It’s a good source of Vitamin E and contains high levels of omega-6 fat, which should be consumed in moderation.
Like grapeseed oil, sunflower oil is another seed-derived oil high in omega-6 and low in saturated fats. However, our bodies need more omega-3 fats than omega-6, so it’s good to consume other oil varieties more often. Johnson recommends avoiding this type of oil in favor of other types.
This oil pairs well with Asian flavors and is commonly used for frying chicken and in stir-fries. Its high smoke point makes it ideal for deep-frying, pan-frying and grilling.
This oil, like the fruit from which it is made, offers heart-healthy fats. It has a very high smoke point and works well for anything from sautéing to frying to searing.
Beware of your oil’s smoke point
Remember, no matter the type of oil you use, you want to avoid reaching its smoking point. When an oil gets so hot it begins to smoke, any healthy fatty acid chains have been destroyed and the vapors released can be harmful.
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