When cooking with oils, choosing the right one can make a big difference in your cooking success, so it’s a good idea to learn a little bit about fats and oils. Oils are just fats that are liquid at room temperature1.
Some oils are really good for you, some are okay, and some should be avoided. Let’s look at the most commonly used cooking oils (and fats because some are solid at room temperature) and see how they stack up. You’ll notice that I put in references and links in this post. I’m not an expert so I want you to know where I got my info. That way you can read more about this topic by clicking on the links here. But don’t go down any rabbit holes just yet. Read on…
Intro to cooking with oils
I want to keep this basic and practical. There’s a wealth of information about fats out there and I know if you’re interested you can find that info yourself. For nutrition info, we rely heavily on a tome called Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, 5th Ed. If you want to know more about why a particular oil is good for you, that’s a great place to start. Check out Chapter 13 – Fat Facts. You also might want to check out 10 Best and Worst Oils for Your Health. For our purposes here, I’m going to focus on cooking with oils and assume that you’re wondering whether you should sautée something with olive oil, canola oil, or avocado oil; or what’s the best oil for Asian food; or what you should use in a salad dressing. And maybe, “What the heck does Extra Virgin mean?” For those questions, I’ve got you covered.
Oil cooking temperatures
Oils are often classified by what’s called a “smoke point”. That’s the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke. It’s good to know about those points because if you heat them above that point, you’ll have toxic fumes in your kitchen. We all know you don’t want that. Here are some smoke points of commonly used oils. If you want a more comprehensive list, go to Smoke Points of Oils for Healthy Cooking.
Cooking oil smoke points
|Oil||Smoke Point °C/°F|
|Extra Virgin Olive Oil||160/320|
|Extra Light Olive Oil||242/468|
|Refined Safflower Oil||266/510|
I could go on, but you get the idea. When we stir-fry vegetables, it’s really more of a stir-steam. Typically we use a light olive oil that has a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil and we keep the heat on medium. Our intention when we’re stir-frying vegetables is to get them cooked just enough that they are tender and tasty. If we do want to cook something at a high temperature, we use avocado oil. Sesame oil adds a nice Asian flavor to stir-fried vegetables. When we use it, we mix it with whatever other oil we’re using, most likely a light olive oil or avocado oil. Speaking of flavor, that’s also a consideration in selecting a cooking oil. Olive oil imparts a distinct flavor while something like safflower oil or avocado oil doesn’t have a strong flavor. Try different things and see what you like.
When cooking fish, we go with either a light olive oil or avocado oil, depending on the type of fish. The great thing about fish is that it cooks super-fast and it doesn’t need a high heat. It just needs to be cooked thoroughly.
Maybe you’re still wondering what’s up with the various types of olive oils. Extra virgin means that it’s not as refined as the light types. Due to its strong flavor, the extra virgin variety is a great choice for salad dressings and bread dipping although you can cook with it – just watch the temperature. When you go to an Italian restaurant and they bring out fresh hot bread, it’s frequently served with a dish of olive oil that is seasoned with black pepper or red pepper flakes. I had some of that recently and writing this makes me want to go back to that restaurant. Yum! Lighter olive oils have more subtle flavors and higher smoke points. If you don’t have some on hand, add olive oil to your grocery list. Try different brands and types to see what you like best.
Other oils and fats
I have covered what we cook with and what I think are typical choices, but there are plenty of other types of oils and fats. Butter is a good choice for sautéing some things and for baking. It adds a wonderful flavor, but if you’re on a low-fat or low cholesterol diet, go easy on it. When baking, I use vegetable shortening or butter. I read the labels and pick the one with the lowest amount of saturated fat. But in baking biscuits or muffins, you don’t get a lot of fat in one muffin or biscuit. It’s not like you’re going to sit down and eat twelve muffins in one sitting. You might be tempted, but you’re probably not going to do that. So in these types of cases, some saturated fat is okay in moderation. I never buy anything that contains trans fats. Trans fats can contribute to clogged arteries which can lead to heart disease2.
To summarize, be aware of smoke points and choose oils accordingly. Experiment often, have fun, and continue discovering what oils work for you.