There are few ingredients in your kitchen that get more use than oils. No matter what you’re cooking or how you’re cooking it, oil is almost always invited to the party. This is true for salads too (assuming it has a dressing/vinaigrette), so oils are involved even when you’re not cooking.
If your pantry needs some spring cleaning, or you’re doing a full upgrade to healthier kitchen products, take a look at your oils first.
If you’ve already done a little research, you’ve noticed there are five bazillion types of oils. You can Google search the heck out of it and still not find any conclusive recommendations on which ones are healthiest. There are debates around the types and ratios of fats in oils, how much heat oils can handle before they break down and release potentially harmful compounds, and all of the labels – expeller-pressed, cold-pressed, extra-virgin, organic, non-GMO.
It’s a mind scrambler, and all you really want to know is what oil is best to fry my damn eggs in?!
In hopes of cutting through a lot of the noise and saving you some time, I’m sharing my favorite healthy cooking oils (including one you’re probably not using) and how I use them.
First, I think it’s important to mention what NOT to cook with, and that’s vegetable oils like soybean oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, and safflower oil. These are heavily processed using toxic chemicals, deodorizers, and extremely high heat to extract the oils from seeds. High in unstable polyunsaturated fats, these oils oxidize easily making them highly inflammatory. Their super high ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to beneficial omega-3 fatty acids also means ingesting these oils regularly creates a prime scenario for chronic inflammation. Most are made from genetically modified crops (GMOs) too. Vegetable oil, especially soybean oil, is in a ton of packaged products and fast food/restaurant food – it’s hard to avoid it! So at least don’t cook with it at home.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil…the workhorse
How I use it: medium-heat cooking, sautéing, pan frying, roasting, and salad dressings and sauces
As you may guess, organic extra virgin olive oil is numero uno for me. I use this most often because I simply love the flavor and body a good quality olive oil adds to whatever I’m making. It’s also rich in vitamin E and heart-healthy antioxidants. Extra virgin means it’s minimally processed, retaining as much olive flavor, aroma and nutritional value as possible. I usually buy Whole Foods’ or Roundy’s brand, but any organic, extra virgin olive oil in a dark-tinted glass bottle or tin from a store you trust is good. If you want an amazing, splurge-worthy olive oil for drizzling over bread or a summer Caprese salad, I highly recommend Columela. It’s sharp, peppery, buttery and SO delicious.
I don’t know where the idea that you can’t heat extra virgin olive oil came from, but it’s a total myth.
The smoke point for extra virgin olive oil is about 375ºF (it can vary some depending on the quality and producer), so just keep the flame to medium or medium-high at most when using it on the stovetop. Heating will, of course, lead to some loss of nutrients, but extra virgin olive oil is still a great cooking option and the flavor I prefer with most dishes. For high-heat cooking with olive oil, save the extra virgin good stuff and use the more affordable light olive oil (the other olive oil in the photo). It’s more refined than extra virgin, so not as nutritious, but more stable for high-heat cooking. I mostly use it for making popcorn (and then I dress the popped corn in extra virgin olive oil).
By the way, every cooking oil/fat has a smoke point. It’s the temperature at which an oil starts continuously smoking when heated. If heated beyond its smoke point, the fat in the oil starts to break down releasing chemical compounds that not only give your food a bitter flavor and rank smell, but also generate toxic fumes that you don’t want to inhale.
Virgin Coconut Oil…the health-world darling
How I use it: medium-heat cooking, roasting vegetables, sautéing dark leafy greens, baking
Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, which is why it’s solid at room temperature. As we now know, it’s a good type of saturated fat (medium-chain triglycerides) that has been shown to improve overall cholesterol levels and have anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
Virgin coconut oil’s smoke point is about 350°F, and I love it for sautéing greens like kale and dandelion greens (<– it tames any bitterness!) and roasting sweet potatoes. For me, the scent and mild flavor of coconut just don’t work with some things. For example, eggs. No coconut eggs for me, thanks. However, it’s perfect for baking muffins and breads and making dark chocolate candy. If you come across baking recipes that call for vegetable oils (a lot use canola oil), feel free to substitute with coconut oil. I don’t notice the coconut flavor or scent as much when I bake sweets with it.
Trader Joe’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil is a steal at $5.99 for 16 ounces. Like olive oil, there’s also refined coconut oil that stands up well to higher temperatures – up to 400°F. Nutiva makes an excellent organic refined coconut oil.
Avocado Oil…the healthiest cooking oil you aren’t using yet
How I use it: high-heat cooking like searing meat and fish, frying and stir frys, roasting over 400°F, broiling, making mayonnaise
Avocados are LIFE. They’re the most perfect food, if you ask me. So, it’s no surprise that I’m a huge fan of avocado oil, which is pressed from the flesh of an avocado. I started using refined avocado oil about a year ago, and it’s become my go-to oil for high-heat cooking like searing and frying. In this case, refined simply means filtered more using mild heat – not heavily processed with chemicals. Refined avocado oil has a very high smoking point – 500°F – and a clean, slightly nutty flavor that’s like BUTTAH. I love pan frying salmon with it. The pan and oil can get ripping hot and yet…no smoke! The only downside is that avocado oil can be pricey. For me, it’s worth the investment because I don’t use it daily.
Moral of the story, for healthy high heat cooking get you some avocado oil! Chosen Foods and Spectrum Naturals make high-quality, non-GMO refined avocado oils. Be sure you’re choosing the refined avocado oil and not virgin/extra virgin avocado oil, which shouldn’t be heated.
Ghee…the better butter
How I use it: frying or scrambling eggs, searing meat, caramelizing onions
It’s not an oil, but organic ghee is an excellent cooking fat worth including here, especially as you’re probably seeing mentions of it pop up more and more. Ghee is butter that’s been heated to the point where the milk solids are separated and removed. There is no water, protein or sugar in ghee, making it a great option for anyone with digestive issues or allergies related to the whey, casein or lactose in milk and regular butter. Ghee is pure butter fat, i.e., insanely delicious and rich in vitamins A and D. It’s my new favorite cooking fat for eggs, since it doesn’t brown like butter does. Ghee can also be used in baking, as well as any high-heat cooking thanks to a smoke point of 485ºF. I’ve only used Purity Farms ghee and haven’t switched it up yet because this one tastes like a dream.
If you have any questions about oils, lay ’em on me in the comments!