by Lisa Maguire & Sasha Reddy
Whether baking, sautéing, or just adding a topper to a cold dish, cooking oils seem to make their way into most every meal we make. But not all oils are created equal.
Things to Consider
Cooking Temperature and Smoke Point
From a health standpoint, one of the most critical factors to consider when choosing a cooking oil is smoke point. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which a substance begins to break down. When heated beyond its smoke point, the chemical structure of oil changes and harmful free radicals are released. These free radicals have been linked to all sorts of health issues, including various forms of cancer.
Some cooking oils have smoke points as low as 220°F or so, while others can go as high as 520°F. Choosing the right oil comes down to knowing how much heat it will be exposed to during the cooking process. Most any oil is suitable for salad dressing, while only oils with high smoke points are suitable for frying and sautéing.
While some recent studies have shown that the levels of toxicity from free radicals have previously been overestimated, just as with pesticides and their level of safety, we encourage you to educate yourself and formulate your own opinion on what’s best for your body and your health.
Fat Content (Saturated vs Monounsaturated vs Polyunsaturated)
According to the latest US Dietary Guidelines, saturated fats currently make up 11 percent of calories consumed. Additionally, only 23 percent of individuals consume amounts of saturated fat consistent with the recommended limit of less than 10 percent of calories.
Cooking with oils higher in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat (e.g., canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, soybean, and sunflower) instead of butter can replace, and therefore reduce, intake of saturated fat.
Consuming saturated fat in excess has been linked to a buildup of LDL (low-density lipoproteins, more commonly thought of as “bad” cholesterol). Over time, a high blood LDL concentration can lead to cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats have been linked to increased levels of HDL (high-density lipoproteins), which can help clear cholesterol from our blood and lower our risk of heart disease.
Typically, oils that are liquid at room temperature contain more unsaturated fats, while oils that are solid contain more of the bad stuff.
Butter falls on the more solid end of the cooking fats spectrum and adds 100 calories and 12g of fat per tablespoon. Due to its low smoke point, if you’re going to sauté with butter, it’s best to stick to vegetables, which don’t take much time to cook over a lower heat setting. If you’re looking to add a buttery flavor to meat, consider adding a tiny amount of oil to the butter to keep it from reaching its smoke point.
- Smoke Point: 250 – 300°F
- Flavor: Creamy and smooth
- Great for sautéing at low heats
- $4.99/pound Organic Salted or Unsalted
- $2.49/pound Salted or Unsalted
While some “foodies” may taste a distinct difference in some or all dishes, most of us are able to swap in a plant-based butter without detection. While margarines early-on were high in trans-fat, many recipes have been revised to compare much more favorably to traditional butter. A tablespoon of Earth Balance plant-based butter will add 100 calories and 11g of fat to your dish, with just 3g of total fat being saturated.
- Smoke Point: 302°F
- Flavor: Buttery
- Great for sautéing at low heats
- $3.99/15 Oz Spread
- $3.99/4, 4 Oz Sticks
Extra Virgin Olive oil (EVOO)
Extra virgin olive oil has a mild flavor, making it a popular cooking and dressing oil. Just like most oils, however, it can pack quite a few calories into your meal if you aren’t careful. Extra virgin olive oil adds 120 calories and 14g of total fat per tablespoon. “EVOO” as Rachael Ray calls it, is rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, but portion control is key. Great for salads, dips, and dressings when served at room temperature. When refrigerated, it will solidify. If you’re cooking with it, sauté items at low heats. Extra virgin olive oil is excellent for carrying the bold flavor of garlic, onions, and shallots, and is popular for sautéing dark and leafy vegetables such as broccolini, spinach, and kale.
- Smoke Point: 320°F
- Flavor: Very mild. Can be described as “grassy” or “earthy.”
- Serve at room temperature for dips and dressings. Sauté using low heats.
- $10.99/33.8 Oz Organic EVOO
- $6.99/33.8 Oz EVOO
Coconut oil contains 117 calories per tablespoon and is excellent for baking or cooking other sweet items on the stove top. It is solid at room temperature, but liquifies when heated just as butter does. Coconut oil does taste like coconut, making it a great complement for pancakes, French toast, and baked goods. With a whopping 12g per tablespoon, coconut oil is high in saturated fat, making its use most appealing for flavor rather than health benefits.
- Smoke Point: 350°F
- Flavor: Mild but noticeable coconut flavor
- Coconut oil is best used for stove-top cooking at moderate temperatures or baking.
- $5.69/14 Oz Organic, Unrefined Coconut Oil
- $4.99/14 Oz Organic Coconut Oil
Canola oil contains 124 calories per tablespoon and is one of the top four most consumed oils in the United States. Its neutral flavor profile, low cost, and high smoke point make it a widely chosen option for fried foods and dressings. While similar in nutrition information to extra virgin olive oil, it is refined and the process for making it is what makes most nutritionists recommend it less often than other options.
- Smoke Point: 400°F
- Flavor: Neutral
- Can be served in dressings or used for frying at medium-high heats.
- $4.29/16 Oz Organic Canola Oil
- $3.49/32 Oz Canola Oil
Sesame oil is known for its distinct nutty flavor and is used as a flavor enhancer in many dishes. It contains 120 calories and 14g of total fat per tablespoon, however 11g are healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Sesame oil can be served room temperature or used for sautéing, as well as an ingredient in warm dishes. Using sesame oil on stir-fry vegetables or adding it to rice can brighten a dish, and best of all – a little goes a long way because it’s so flavorful!
- Smoke Point: 410°F
- Flavor: Bold, Nutty
- Great for salads and cold dishes or warm dishes and sautéing.
- $4.29/8.4 Oz Unrefined, Organic Sesame Oil
- $3.69/8.4 Oz Toasted Sesame Oil
Similar to canola oil, vegetable oil is refined and most often made from corn. With 120 calories per tablespoon, vegetable oil offers little nutritional benefit, however it is inexpensive and highly versatile.
- Smoke Point: 428°F
- Flavor: Neutral
- Can be served in dressings or used for frying at high heats.
- $2.99/32 Oz Vegetable Oil
Unrefined Avocado Oil
Unrefined avocado oil is advocated for its health benefits, including aiding the body to absorb nutrients, while being high in unsaturated fats. It contains 124 calories and 14g of fat per tablespoon, and it has an unusually high smoke point for an unrefined oil, making it excellent for frying.
- Smoke Point: 482°F
- Flavor: Mild, but described as “grassy” like olive oil.
- Can be used for frying at high heats as well as for dressings and dips.
- $8.99/16.9 Oz EVOO