Flaxseed, walnut, olive, peanut, avocado…with the seemingly endless parade of cooking oils on supermarket shelves, it’s no wonder people are confused about which to choose for their sautés and stir-fries. To help you make sense of the options, we’ve put together a straightforward guide so you’ll know exactly which trusty oil to grab the next time you’re working your kitchen magic.
First, all cooking oils are high in calories and fat, delivering about 120 calories and 14 grams of total fat per tablespoon. They differ in their mix of saturated fat, monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), with PUFAs providing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
So, which oils are healthier? Oils high in omega-3s (such as walnut and flaxseed) top Registered Dietitian Elle Penner’s list, since evidence shows they may support heart health. Almond, avocado, olive, and coconut oils also get high marks. That said, the best choice for your health is striking a balance.
“A diet that includes a variety of quality oils with saturated, mono- and polyunsaturated fats,” Penner stresses, “will offer the most nutrition and health benefits.”
Oils’ production methods also factor into the health equation. Penner recommends using cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oils when possible; these can be pricier but yield a cleaner, purer, and more nutritionally intact oil.
Solvent-expelled oils, in contrast, “tend to be highly refined, which negatively impacts nutritional quality,” Penner says. They’re also extracted from the plant using chemicals, some of which may remain in the oil. Highly refined, solvent-expressed oils can include canola, palm, safflower, peanut, and soybean or “vegetable” oil.
In addition to nutrition and flavor, an oil’s smoke point — the temperature at which it starts to smoke and break down — helps determine whether you’ll use it for high-heat searing and frying, or save it for no-cook dressings and drizzling over finished dishes. If your oil does start smoking, throw it out to avoid toxic fumes and byproducts.
Oils with the highest smoke points (400°F and above) include: safflower, rice bran, light olive, soybean, peanut, corn, sunflower, vegetable, and canola.
Does your oil smell or taste bitter, or is otherwise “off”? Don’t try to stretch it a few more sauces. The nutrient value of oils decrease when they go rancid.
Since oils are sensitive to light, air, and heat, store them in cool, dark places such as a cupboard away from the stove. Delicate varieties — such as walnut, flaxseed, and grapeseed — go rancid more quickly and should be kept in the fridge.
These are those that are highest in omega-3s.
Saturated Fat: 7%
Flaxseed oil is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Elle Penner, R.D. The healthy, seed-based oil can’t tolerate heat, so save it for salad dressings, dips, and marinades. Keep it refrigerated, too.
Saturated Fat: 9%
One of the more delicate oils, nutty-flavored walnut oil has a low smoke point and shouldn’t be heated. It’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, notes Penner, and is good in pesto or homemade salad dressing. Keep it refrigerated.
Still Healthy Oils
Saturated Fat: 14%
Olive oil is a moderate-heat cooking oil that contains vitamin E and K. Extra virgin olive oil has excellent flavor. “Virgin” or “pure” olive oils are more refined and will tolerate more heat. Be aware that olive oils labeled “light” are light in color, not in calories!
Saturated Fat: 7%
High in vitamin E, almond oil has a high smoke point that makes it suitable for high-heat cooking. Its distinct flavor also makes it great for enhancing desserts, or drizzling over salads.
Saturated Fat: 92%
Virgin coconut oil is high in saturated fat and contains lauric acid, a type of fat* that raises both good and bad cholesterol levels. Use it in moderation as a substitute for butter or shortening in low-heat baking, light sautéing, and sauces.
Saturated Fat: 17%
Avocado oil also has a high smoke point. It’s great for high-heat cooking (think stir-frying and searing meat) as well as salad dressings, dips, and marinades. On the nutrition front, Penner notes it boasts both vitamin E and heart-healthy phytosterols.
Saturated Fat: 10%
Extracted from grape seeds, grapeseed oil has a medium-high smoke point that’s well-suited to oven-cooking and sautés. It contains vitamin E, is high in polyunsaturated omega-6s, and goes rancid quickly – so store it in the refrigerator.
Saturated Fat: 7%
Canola oil is an all-purpose oil with a neutral flavor and medium-high smoke point. Use it for sautés, baking, browning, pan-frying, and stir-frying. It contains a moderate amount of omega-3s, says Penner. Look for cold-pressed or expeller-pressed versions.
Saturated Fat: 18%
“Peanut oil is super flavorful and good for high-heat cooking,” notes Penner, “especially for Asian stir-fry dishes, and cooking and frying fish.” You can also use it for baking and sautés. It contains vitamin E and phytosterols.
Saturated Fat: 18%
Safflower oil is another good all-purpose oil with a higher smoke point. Its flavor pairs especially well with chicken and pasta dishes.
Saturated Fat: 15%
High in polyunsaturated omega-6s and suitable for low-temp baking, quick sautés, and sauces, soybean oil is often found under another name. Pure vegetable oil is often 100% soybean oil, which is cheap to produce and mostly made from soybeans that have been genetically modified.
Palm oil is high in palmitic acid.
Saturated Fat: 52%
Palm oil’s high smoke point makes it suitable for frying, but Penner cautions that it’s: “high in palmitic acid, which is associated with increased risk of heart disease.” If you want to avoid it, check labels of packaged and processed foods, where it is increasingly used as a replacement for artificial trans fats.