Canola or peanut oil? Grapeseed or sesame oil? Extra-virgin or regular olive oil? When it comes to cooking oils, the choices can seem endless and overwhelming. Have no fear; however, a few hints will help you make the best decisions when the time comes to start pouring the oil. To choose the right oil, start by asking the right questions.
What Kind of Fat Does It Have?
All oils contain fatty acids, but the different chemicals in different kinds of fats affect both your cooking and your health.
- Trans fats (like shortening and stick margarine) contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. For optimal health, eliminate all trans fats from your diet.
- Saturated fats (like butter and animal fat) are solid at room temperature. Saturated fats should make up under seven percent of your diet.
- Polyunsaturated fats (like canola oil, sunflower oil, and walnut oil) are always liquid, even when refrigerated. Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated ones can improve cholesterol and heart health. The omega-3 oils in polyunsaturated fats are particularly important for raising HDL cholesterol.
- Monounsaturated fats (like olive oil and peanut oil) are liquid at room temperature but become cloudy or semi-solid when refrigerated. Monounsaturated fats also improve cholesterol health, and extra-virgin olive oil—the result of the first pressing of the olives—contains antioxidants called polyphenols that can boost health.
What Is Its Smoke Point?
The smoke point is the temperature at which oil starts to burn and smoke, releasing harmful fumes and free radicals. For searing and browning food at a high heat, choose palm, sunflower, or avocado oil. For medium heat, like for baking or stir-frying, canola is versatile, but extra virgin olive oil provides the most health benefits. For light sautéing or sauces, walnut and sesame provide wonderful flavors. Some oils, like flaxseed or wheat germ, should only be used for dressings or drizzling on food.
How Important Is Flavor?
Vegetable and canola oil are great for baking because they have almost no flavor on their own, but that same quality also makes them pretty boring for dressings and sauces. Similarly, strongly-flavored oils like sesame, olive, or walnut can add wonderful dimensions to sauces and meals, but they would not taste good in your favorite brownie recipe.
The bottom line is that no matter what your needs are, there is an oil that fits the bill. Kept to a healthy level, oils can be a delicious and nutritious part of your diet.