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The Ultimate Guide to Healthy Cooking Oils

which oil is best to cook with

It’s time for the ultimate guide to healthy cooking oils! The way cooking oils are used, stored, and made can change the flavor of even your simplest dishes.

As a food blogger for over a decade, I definitely know my way around cooking oils and what works best where. So, I’ve created this guide to using the most popular healthy oils with my rankings on nutrition and flavor, and I included recommendations on how and when to use them.

Which oil is better for cooking? Various oils are better for different cooking styles. A versatile oil like extra virgin olive oil is delicious with sauteed veggies. If you’re frying, you’ll want an oil with a higher smoke point (like avocado oil). For baking, extra virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil make great subs for lesser quality vegetable oils.

Some oils are better used for high heats, while others serve as a tasty base for dips and salad dressings.

Which oils are best for salads? Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, and flaxseed oil all make for yummy dressings.

What is the difference in cooking oils? Cooking oils can come from plants, animals, or even synthetic processes. They’ll have unique smoke points (in other words, when a cooking oil starts to burn) and unique flavors. I recommend sticking to natural oils and avoiding synthetic or highly-processed vegetable, canola, and soybean oils.

The fat content in oils also sets them apart. While fats are an essential part of any diet, like a flexitarian one, you should know whether the fats in your cooking oils are saturated or unsaturated.

Quick note: Unsaturated fats are generally known as “healthy fats,” because they’re known to reduce high cholesterol levels and provide more health benefits. Unsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature. Your body also needs a small amount of saturated fats to maintain optimal health. Saturated fats, such as coconut oil and butter, are generally solid at room temperatures.

So when it comes to all of the cooking oils out there, how do you know which to choose? Here’s the lowdown on each type—you can scroll through the entire post or choose a quick link here:

(BTW, some links on my blog may earn me a small commission if you use them to purchase a product, which helps us keep the blog running.  You never pay more when clicking a link on my site. Thanks for being here!)

Olive Oil & Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★★★
Smoke Point: Medium

is olive oil healthy to cook with

What is the healthiest oil to cook with? Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is widely considered the healthiest cooking oil and is one of my own go-to’s.

Extra virgin olive oil is loaded up with health benefits like:

  • Monounsaturated fats that lower your LDL cholesterol
  • Antioxidants
  • Anti-inflammatories like oleic acid
  • High level of polyphenols, micronutrients packed with health benefits

Olive oil is also a key part of a Mediterranean diet. You’ll find that people who live in the Blue Zones use extra virgin olive oil most often in their cooking. Maybe that’s their secret to long lives!

The flavor profile of olive oil varies, from nutty to bitter to fruity, depending on where the oil came from.

What is the difference between regular olive oil and extra virgin olive oil? Regular olive oil is a blend of pressed and processed olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is cold pressed and naturally filtered from pure olive paste and has had all impurities removed. This standard of purity is why extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is my recommendation for healthy cooking.

Is it healthy to cook with extra virgin olive oil?  Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point between 325-400ºF, depending on the quality of the oil. Some people say that it’s not healthy to cook with EVOO, but that’s not the case. Extra virgin olive oil is great to saute with up to a medium to medium-high heat, and perfectly fine for roasting vegetables. The oil coating the vegetables raises the surface temperature of the veggies, which aids in roasting, and does not reach the ambient temperature of the oven. It works similarly to how a chicken would only reach around 175°F in a 400°F oven. Cook with EVOO whenever you’d like! The only cooking method you should not use EVOO for is deep-frying.

Also, be careful of “fake” extra virgin olive oils—many bottles have additives and extra oils that are not listed on the labels.

How can you know if your extra virgin olive oil is 100% real? 100% real extra virgin olive oil is slightly bitter, but has a fresh smell. Did you know that there is actually a huge “black market” for selling fake olive oil?! Avoid words like “pure,” “light,” or other synonyms. Real extra virgin olive oil will say exactly that on the bottle and only buy from companies you trust. For this reason, I almost exclusively buy the Thrive Market extra virgin olive oil.

When buying extra virgin olive oil, you want to make sure your oil is unrefined. Light olive oil is refined, making it less heart-healthy than EVOO. Also, look for 100% extra virgin olive oil and be sure it’s authentic, as many cheaper brands are cut with lesser quality oils.

Use extra virgin olive oil to:

Olive oil is a great finishing oil, too. Drizzle a higher-quality EVOO as a finishing touch on your dishes.

My recommendation: Find a great high-quality extra virgin olive oil and use it often. It’s the oil that I personally use the most. I even use it as a substitute for vegetable oil in cakes and baked goods; you can’t even taste it and your baked goods will turn out the same. Thrive Market extra virgin olive oil is a mainstay in my kitchen; I use it in everything from salad dressings to soup to sauteeing veggies and more.

Avocado Oil

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★★★
Smoke Point: High

is avocado oil good to cook with

Avocado oil is a heart-healthy cooking oil with high levels of monounsaturated fat—that’s the good stuff that lowers cholesterol—and vitamin E. It’s generally light but has a distinct taste, just as you’d expect from an avocado, with a high smoke point of 520˚F.

Which oil is best for high heat cooking? Avocado oil is one of the best oils for high heat cooking, making it a healthier alternative for deep frying, grilling, stir-frying, roasting, and searing.

The best avocado oil will come from high-quality fruits. The color of the oil should resemble the inside of an avocado when you pour it.

There’s a downside to all these benefits, though: Avocado oil does tend to be more expensive than other cooking oils.

Use avocado oil to:

  • Marinate meats and veggies
  • Fry or pan-fry in a healthier way
  • Grill and saute
  • Dress a salad, if desired

My recommendation: Avocado oil is great to have around to saute and roast veggies. This is another one that I always have in my kitchen.

Coconut Oil

Flavor Rating ★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★
Smoke Point: High

Coconut oil’s popularity has soared recently. About half of the high percentage of saturated fats in coconut oil come from lauric acid, which boosts good HDL cholesterol, so it can be a healthier source of saturated fats in moderation.

Which oil is the most stable oil? Coconut oil’s resistance to high heat and oxidation makes it one of the most stable cooking oils out there.

The flavor can be slightly coconutty (unrefined) or more neutral (refined). I gave this one 4 stars on flavor because it’s hard to mask the flavor of coconut oil in cooking. If you love the flavor of coconut, it will work great for you.

For high-quality, healthier coconut oil, seek out labels that describe it as unrefined, virgin, or cold-pressed. These will be solids in your pantry, melting as they heat up or when it touches your hands. Coconut oil had a melting point of around 78ºF, so it may be liquid at room temperature in warmer climates. Unrefined or virgin coconut oil is slightly more expensive—but remember, you’re paying for quality.

The smoke point on coconut oil will vary based on refinement. Refined and virgin coconut oil varieties have a smoke point of up to 450ºF. Unrefined varieties smoke around 350-375ºF.

Coconut oil can be used to:

  • Enhance flavors in sauces and curries
  • Pan roast veggies
  • Replace butter in baking (in most cases)

My recommendation: While virgin coconut oil does have a high smoke point, it’s extremely high in saturated fats which can slow down digestion. It does have some health benefits, but I recommend using it sparingly. It’s great in no-bake desserts to help hold things together. When using coconut oil in recipes, opt for virgin coconut oil.

Butter

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★
Smoke Point: Low

is butter healthy

Butter’s high saturated fat content doesn’t make it all bad, as it’s still a healthier option than the trans fats found in many margarines. Those at risk of heart disease should use it in moderation.

Butter contains butterfat and milk solids from the milk that it’s made from, which gives it structure and keeps it solid at warmer than room temperature. If you avoid dairy, you should avoid butter. Ghee (below) is a dairy-free cousin of butter.

The flavor of your butter can be sweet or more mellow, with added freshness if it’s coming from grass-fed animals. Grass-fed butter is also more nutrient-dense, thus the higher price point.

Butter has a lower smoke point of 302°F, so it’s not suitable for high-heat cooking. If you want the buttery flavor in high-heat cooking use Ghee (see below).

Butter is best used for:

  • Baked goods
  • Toppings or spreads
  • Thick sauces

My recommendation: I like to avoid most dairy products because I see a noticeable difference in my skin and digestion. I sometimes use butter but often opt for extra virgin olive oil instead for cooking.  If you tolerate dairy, use grass-fed butter sparingly when you want it for flavor.

Ghee

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★★
Smoke Point: High

is ghee good to cook with

Ghee, packed with vitamin A and omega fatty acids, is clarified butter. Butter is strained to remove the milk, creating ghee. It’s a common ingredient in vegetarian cooking, though it’s unfortunately not vegan.

I love that the little-to-no lactose in ghee means it’s gentler on digestion and a good dairy alternative. The flavor resembles a slightly nuttier butter taste.

Ghee’s hike smoke point of 482°F is another perk over butter, making it appropriate for high-heat dishes.

Whether you’re looking for imports from India, a top ghee producer, or local brands, read the labels. You shouldn’t see any fillers like palm oil in the ingredients. You can also purchase ghee as an oil when you’re not looking to replicate the texture of butter.

Store-bought ghee can get pricey, but you can make your own ghee without too much effort. I admit that I do mostly purchase mine, and I get it on Thrive Market at a great price.

Use it to:

  • Sear a steak
  • Sautee your veggies
  • Fry your eggs
  • Top your baked potato or bagel
  • Replace butter in baking

My recommendation: A little ghee goes a long way to giving something a rich, classic buttery flavor without the milk solids. I like to add a teaspoon or two to sauces that benefit from butter, and I sometimes like to add it to my baked oatmeal for a classic buttery flavor.

Macadamia Nut Oil

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★★★
Smoke Point: High

Milder than walnut oil’s nutty flavor, macadamia nut oil (aka mac nut oil) is a heart-healthy cooking oil with high levels of monounsaturated fat, vitamin E, and antioxidants. It also has a wonderful buttery flavor with no butter at all.

A high smoke point of 410˚F makes the oil perfect for roasting and high-heat stir fry dishes. The only downside is that it can be quite expensive.

Macadamia nut oil is best cold-pressed. Look for virgin or unrefined on the label for a higher-quality oil. You’ll retain the health benefits of the oil with a less-processed product.

Use macadamia nut oil to:

  • Roast and stir fry veggies
  • Dress slaws and salads (like my slaw recipe)
  • Replace coconut oil when you want a more neutral flavor

My recommendation: If you can afford it, mac nut oil is fun to use and experiment with.  However, there’s no need to purchase it if you don’t feel you’ll use it.

Flaxseed Oil

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★★★
Smoke Point: Low

Flaxseed oil is a cooking oil rich in ALA omega-3 fatty acids, including linolenic acid. Its nutty flavor but low smoke point make it perfect as a dressing or finisher rather than a cooking oil.

Check sell-by dates when buying flaxseed oil because it spoils quite quickly. It’s typically sold in smaller quantities and can be expensive if used daily. Store it in the refrigerator to prolong its shelflife.

Use flaxseed oil to:

  • Dress a salad
  • Swap out other oils in dips and sauces that are blended and not cooked
  • Bump up nutritional content on your morning smoothie

My recommendation: Keep some flaxseed oil in the fridge and add a teaspoon to smoothies or a dash to salad dressings to boost your plant-based omega-3 intake.

Sesame Oil

Flavor Rating ★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★★★
Smoke Point: High

Sesame oil’s anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidants, and heart-healthy fats make it an excellent addition to your pantry and to your wellness plan.

There are two types of culinary sesame oil: regular and toasted. Regular sesame oil is light in color relatively neutral in flavor. Toasted sesame oil is often dark brown with a deep, nutty umami flavor. If you want to add a nutty sesame taste, you can opt for the toasted variety. A little toasted sesame oil goes a long way flavor-wise, so use it in small amounts.

A higher smoke point of 410˚F makes it useful in recipes calling for high temperatures, and many Asian dishes employ this oil for texture and flavor.

When shopping for sesame oil, the type will determine the color. As I mentioned, regular sesame oil is light in color and flavor and very common in Asian-style cooking, and it can be used on your skin, too. Toasted sesame oil is a dark brown color, with concentrated flavor used in many sauces and dressings.

Most home chefs buy small quantities of sesame oil due to its higher cost.

Use regular sesame oil in:

  • Sautes and stir fry
  • Asian dishes, especially when paired with ginger and soy sauce
  • Marinades

Use toasted sesame oil as a flavoring agent in salad dressings and sauces.

This recipe for Spicy Garlic Edamame really lets the toasted sesame oil shine.

Fun oil fact: non-toasted (regular) sesame oil is the traditional oil used in oil pulling, an ancient Ayurvedic practice that supports good oral health. Again, toasted sesame oil is reserved for culinary dishes.

My recommendation: I love toasted sesame oil in my garlicky edamame and always have a small bottle around. Regular sesame oil is great for Asian-inspired dishes, but to be honest, I use my extra virgin olive oil in just about everything or use avocado oil if EVOO won’t work.

Grapeseed Oil

is grapeseed oil healthy

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★
Smoke Point: Medium-High

Grapeseed oil is high in polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E, making it a healthier alternative to safflower oil. Its neutral flavor is good for high-heat cooking, as it has a smoke point of 420˚F.

High-quality grapeseed oil is expeller-pressed, which just means the extraction was chemical-free. Due to its lack of pollutants, it can cost up to double what you’ll pay for cheaper canola or vegetable oils. It’s not as healthy as extra virgin olive oil but makes a great substitute for lesser quality oils if you need a very neutral taste.

Use grapeseed oil for:

  • Grilled and sauteed veggies
  • High-heat stir fry
  • Salad dressings

My recommendation: As I mentioned above, I use my extra virgin olive oil in baked goods often. If you need a very neutral oil, grapeseed oil is great in baked goods, sauces, or salad dressings.

Vegan Butter (aka Vegan Shortening)

Flavor Rating ★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★
Smoke Point: Medium-High; Varies

Not to be confused with margarine and Crisco, vegan butter is basically whipped oil with some salt to make it taste more like salted butter. Many varieties of vegan butter have popped up over the years, including those made with grapeseed oil, palm oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil blends.

Nutrition-wise,  it’s not terrible for you, but it doesn’t have a lot of health benefits, either.

Use vegan butter as a substitute for butter in baked goods, or wherever you’d use butter but want something truly vegan.

My recommendation: I like to use vegan butter in baked goods when trying to achieve a truly vegan outcome. I prefer the “Soy-free Earth Balance” brand, which is basically whipped grapeseed oil and salt. Vegan butter made with palm oils yields a fantastic end product, but palm oil production greatly contributes to deforestation so I mostly avoid buying it. Be sure to read the label of the vegan butter you purchase to determine if it fits into your eating style. The smoke-point of it will vary based on what type of oil it’s made from. Always avoid conventional margarine and Crisco as they are made up of highly processed trans fats.

Animal Fats (Tallow, Lard, Bacon Fat)

Flavor Rating ★★★★★
Nutrition Rating ★★★
Smoke Point: Varies

Animal fats such as tallow, lard, and bacon fat have a high amount of saturated fat. From a nutrition perspective, it’s best to use these fats in moderation. In moderation, high-quality animal fats can be an exciting addition to your cooking routine because, from a culinary perspective, they can add incredible flavor to dishes and help you achieved desired textures.

The flavor of each will depend on the quality of life of the animal it came from. The smoke point varies: around 400° for tallow, 375° for lard, and 400ºF for bacon fat.

The best animal fats will come from high-quality animal sources: organic, grass-fed animals with no added antibiotics or hormones that have been humanely raised. The cost will vary based on the source.

Use animal fats to:

  • Replace butter in your baking (some bakers swear by lard in their pie crusts)
  • Roast veggies
  • Add a bacon flavor to heart dishes

My recommendation: Use animal fats sparingly and only if a particular flavor or texture is trying to be achieved.

3 Cooking Oils to Avoid

Avoid: Canola, vegetable, and soybean oils are often denatured, a form of food processing that I talk about in my book, The Health Habit.

  • Canola oil is highly processed with synthetics that allow it to have a longer shelf life, with a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio that can increase inflammation in your body.
  • Vegetable oil contains unsaturated fats that can oxidize when heated, leading to possible inflammation and the release of free radicals.
  • Soybean oil is hard on your digestion and tends to oxidize, causing inflammation. A recent study also showed a link between soybean oil and changes in the brain chemistries of mice, which isn’t good news.

These are the top 3 oils to skip over when choosing your next cooking oil.

Safflower oil, sunflower oil, and peanut oil are also often denatured and highly processed making them void of any nutrients, so it’s best to avoid them when cooking at home.

What is the cheapest cooking oil? Canola oil is the cheapest cooking oil in the United States. Vegetable and soybean oil are also inexpensive, but that doesn’t make these oils the best option in the kitchen.

Make Your Own Flavored Cooking Oils

Flavored cooking oils can be a delicious addition to a dressing or marinade and make for a sophisticated gift. You don’t even need to pay a premium for them if you know how to make your own.

To make your own flavored cooking oil:

  1. Gather up your ingredients. Oil can be infused with the flavors you like: fresh or dried herbs, chiles, garlic, or citrus.
  2. Gently heat your cooking oil in a saucepan over low heat for 3-4 minutes. Mine would be extra virgin olive oil.
  3. Remove your oil from heat, and add your herbs, spices, etc.
  4. Let your mixture steep until you smell those fragrances. The longer your infusers sit in the oil, the stronger the flavor will be.
  5. Strain and store your oil in a jar or other airtight container.

Note: The shelf life of your flavored oil will depend on the infuser. Oils with fresh herbs, garlic, and vegetables should be used within a few weeks.

How to Store Your Cooking Oils

As a general rule of thumb, your cooking oils should be stored away from heat, air, and light. Sitting at room temperature in a dark pantry is a perfect location for most oils.

However, flaxseed oil, regular and toasted sesame oil, walnut oil, and other delicate oils should be stored in the fridge. Oils that won’t be used within a few months should also be stored in the refrigerator to prolong the shelf life.

Improper storage can impact the freshness, benefits, and overall taste of your cooking oils. When in doubt, take a whiff out of that bottle. If you’re noticing a funny smell, your oil has likely gone bad. Pay attention to expiration dates and the smell of the oil. If it smells bad it’s probably gone rancid.

Here’s the Right Way to Throw Away Used Cooking Oil

Pouring used cooking oil down the drain can cause clogs as it hardens. So, what’s the right way to throw away used cooking oil?

  • Cool the oil before making any sudden moves.
  • Pour it into a bag or sealed container. The container it came in is a good option.
  • Seal your container and toss it in the trash.

Some recycling centers will accept used cooking oil as a more sustainable option. Worldwide, cooking oils are being used in new, more environmentally-friendly ways, like biodiesel and animal feed.

I hope this guide has shed some light on when to use each of those cooking oils in your pantry.

What’s your favorite daily cooking oil? Share it in the comments section below.

Sources

  1. An overview of the modulatory effects of oleic acid in health and disease.
  2. Dysregulation of hypothalamic gene expression and the oxytocinergic system by soybean oil diets in male mice.
  3. Avocado oil: characteristics, properties, and applications

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