Gone are the days when fat was considered to be practically a poison. Thankfully, we’ve learned a lot since those days — fat is an essential nutrient that we need for many reasons, including energy, cell structure, and absorbing fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. The tricky thing about dietary fats, though, is that some are healthier than others.
Fats that are liquid at room temperature are called unsaturated fats, and they help build cell membranes, protect nerves, and reduce “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides. When it comes to liquid fats, or oils, there’s a dizzying array to choose from. Some are best suited for cooking, while others should mostly be used for salad dressings, garnishing, or dipping bread.
Cooking oil considerations
No matter which type of oil you cook with, remember to store your oils away from heat and light. Keep your oils in a cool, dark place (like your kitchen cupboard) for up to a year (if the oil is unopened, it may last even longer). You’ll know if your oil is rancid since it will have an “off” flavor and may smell like crayons, according to Cooks Illustrated. A rancid oil may be somewhat sticky, too.
Certain oils are best kept in the refrigerator to maintain freshness. These include corn oil, sunflower oil, and sesame oil. You can refrigerate any oil, although some oils, such as olive oil, may solidify. If this happens, don’t toss it — simply let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes to warm up.
Another factor to consider when choosing an oil is its smoke point. The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which it starts to smoke and burn. If this happens, your food will have an acrid and burnt flavor due to the breakdown of the oil.
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Best oil #1: Extra-virgin olive oil
Not surprisingly, extra-virgin olive oil (also called EVOO, for short) ranks at the top of the list. EVOO is cold-pressed, unlike other types of olive oil that are more refined. Research show that this aromatic oil may lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, thanks to its high monounsaturated fat content. This explains, in part, why the Mediterranean style eating is so healthful.
Smoke point: 350°F to 410°F
Best for: Sautéing, salad dressings
Best oil #2: Peanut oil
Like EVOO, peanut oil is another “heart smart” oil, thanks to its high level of monounsaturated fat that helps lower LDL cholesterol and cuts the risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s also a good source of vitamin E. Peanut oil is often used in Asian dishes, and it’s a great choice for stir-frying and sautéing.
Smoke point: 450°F
Best for: Sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, grilling
Best oil #3: Canola oil
Canola oil is made from the crushed seeds of the canola plant, a widely grown crop in Canada. This oil is high in healthy unsaturated fats and has the lowest amount of saturated (unhealthy) fat of the common cooking oils. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows canola oil to carry a qualified health claim that canola oil can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease when used in place of saturated fat. There has been some concern about canola oil’s safety, due to the use of a hexane, a solvent, to extract oil from the canola seeds. Research shows that there is little reason for concern about trace levels of hexane in canola oil, however. You can purchase unrefined, cold-pressed canola oil, but it’s expensive and not always easy to find. Two reasons to use canola oil are its high smoke point and neutral flavor (making it ideal for baking).
Smoke point: 375°F to 450°F
Best for: Baking, frying, sautéing, salad dressings
Best oil #4: Sesame oil
Sesame oil is made from sesame seeds. Some sesame oil is made from toasted sesame seeds, and this oil has a dark brown color with a nutty flavor and rich, roasted aroma. Untoasted, or raw, sesame oil is made from untoasted sesame seeds. This oil is much lighter in color and has a more neutral flavor, similar to canola oil. Many Asian dishes are made with toasted sesame oil, which gives the food a very warm, nutty flavor. Sesame oil is rich in unsaturated fat and low in saturated fat. It also contains vitamin E and antioxidants called sesamol and sesaminol that, along with the vitamin E, help fight free radicals in the body, reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease. Sesame oil can be a good substitute for peanut oil.
Smoke point: 410°F to 446°F
Best for: Sautéing, stir-frying, frying
With so many oils to choose from, including others not on this list (such as avocado oil, walnut oil, and sunflower seed oil), you might want to experiment and choose an oil based on the type of dish that you’re cooking. If you like to bake, neutral flavored oils, such as canola and safflower oil, may be your best bets.