From sauces to stir-fries, healthy cooking oils are essential ingredients. But overheating these staples can be hazardous. "When an oil reaches the temperature at which it begins to smoke, it becomes damaged at a molecular level," says Robert Dadd, MH, master herbalist with Flora Manufacturing & Distribution Ltd. in Burnaby, B.C. In addition to compromising the taste of your food, "These damaged molecules also create free radicals in the body that are potentially carcinogenic, given enough time and exposure," Dadd cautions.
That scary proposition has many health-conscious home cooks relying on high-heat canola oil alone. But any foodie worth his or her salt will say sautéing vegetables in olive oil or using sesame oil for a stir-fry adds a not-to-be-missed flavor complexity.
Can you get good flavor without getting burned? Some respected chefs and nutritionists say yes. Here, they share their favorite oils and advice with VT. Use this guide to find the right varieties for all your cooking needs.
Smoke point: 420°F
The scoop: This high-heat nut oil has a mild flavor and a pale-yellow color. Unrefined varieties have sweeter, nuttier undertones; look for "cold-pressed" on the label. Almond oil is high in heart-healthful monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, says Jenny Matthau, president of the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York.
Best uses: Sautéing, roasting, stir-frying, and baking. Use the unrefined variety for salad dressings, and drizzling over finished dishes.
Smoke point: 520°F
The scoop: Emerald-green avocado oil has the highest smoke point of any plant oil. It adds a full texture and flavor without leaving foods greasy. Unrefined varieties have a buttery, grassy taste with mushroom undertones. Avocado oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, which can lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels while raising beneficial HDL levels. It also contains vitamin E.
Best uses: Sautéing, roasting, frying, stir-frying, and baking. Unrefined avocado oil adds a luxurious touch to salad dressings and soups, or use it as a dip for bread, says Ani Phyo, a Los Angeles-based chef and the author of Ani's Raw Food Asia.
Smoke point: 400°F
The scoop: Though it's considered a good source of heart-healthful monounsaturated fats and alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, canola is still the most controversial of all oils. Developed from plant-bred rapeseed, a variety of mustard, the oil has been blamed for everything from glaucoma to Mad Cow disease. Fortunately, since many chefs find canola oil indispensable, research has failed to substantiate those charges. "Though it's somewhat processed, we use canola as one of our staple oils, specifically for frying and some baking," says Elliott Prag, a frequent VT contributor as well as a chef and instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. "It's neutral in flavor, color, and aroma; has a high smoke point; and is extremely versatile." Shopping tip: genetic engineering is commonplace with canola crops, so if you want to avoid GMOs, look for organic canola oil.
Best uses: Roasting, broiling, baking, sautéing, and stir-frying, or as the base for mayonnaise or salad dressings.
Smoke point: 350°F
The scoop: Extracted from the fat-rich flesh of the coconut, this oil has a creamy texture and buttery flavor with caramel undertones. Unrefined varieties have a pronounced coconut taste and aroma; refined versions are more neutral. Though it’s mostly saturated fat (11.8 grams per tablespoon, compared to 1 to 2 grams for most other plant oils), coconut oil may reduce total and LDL cholesterol, while raising beneficial HDL. "The saturated fat is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides, which are more easily digested and absorbed," says Rachel Beller, RD, founder of Beller Nutritional Institute in Beverly Hills, Calif. "It's also high in lauric acid, a compound that has antimicrobial properties." Because many mass-market brands are bleached, deodorized, and chemically extracted during the refining process, look for "expeller-pressed" on the label.
Best uses: Light sautéing, low-temperature stir-frying, and baking. Unrefined coconut oil adds a distinctive Thai or Asian flavor to baked goods. "Or use it in smoothies, cookies, and sauces, or mixed with olive oil for a spread," says Phyo.
Smoke point: 390°F
The scoop: Extracted from the seeds of grapes, usually those used for making wine, this deep green oil has a neutral flavor and a high smoke point, making it a favorite among cooks. Two caveats: "Grapeseed oil has more omega-6 fats than any other oil," says Matthau. Research suggests that too much omega-6 relative to omega-3 fat promotes inflammation in the body, so use grapeseed oil in moderation. In addition, many grapeseed oils are chemically extracted using solvents such as hexane, so look for expeller-pressed versions, which are free of solvent residues.
Best uses: Roasting, broiling, sautéing, and stir-frying; making homemade mayonnaise; or blending with stronger-flavored oils such as walnut or toasted sesame to soften their flavors.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Smoke point: 320°F
The scoop: With its robust flavor, health benefits, and moderate smoke point, olive oil is a necessity in every kitchen. Extra virgin, from the first pressing, is the highest quality, and has grassy, herbal undertones and a green-gold hue. High in monounsaturated fats and antioxidant polyphenols, it may help protect against cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and inflammation. Because extra virgin olive oil may be adulterated with other oils, choose organic versions, advises Prag.
Best uses: "I consider olive oil one of my staples, and I use it every day and in nearly all the dishes I cook," says Deborah Madison, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Use extra virgin varieties for dressing salads, dipping bread, drizzling over finished dishes, or marinating kale and other raw vegetables, suggests Phyo. Pure olive oil—a blend of refined and virgin olive oils—has a smoke point of 420°F and is best for roasting, broiling, sautéing, and stir-frying.
Smoke point: 410°F
The scoop: Distinctly flavored sesame oil adds instant Asian flair to recipes. There are two main types: golden sesame oil, which is pressed from raw sesame seeds; and toasted sesame oil, which is pressed from toasted seeds and has a dark brown color and powerfully nutty flavor. For best quality, says Prag, "Choose unrefined cold-pressed sesame oils, and look for those from quality sources, such as Eden, Erewhon, or Mitoku."
Best uses: Refined sesame oil works well for roasting, broiling, sautéing, and high-heat stir-frying. Unrefined sesame oil is best for light sautéing, low-heat stir-frying, drizzling over vegetables, adding to cooked brown rice, or in Asian-inspired sauces and dressings. When it comes to toasted sesame oil, a little goes a long way, says Madison. "It has an intense flavor," she notes. "I use it as a finishing oil on a stir fry, or add a few drops to salad dressing."
Certain rules apply to all oils. Follow these guidelines for buying and storing.
Refined versus unrefined Refined oils, which are free of tiny impurities that can burn and lower the smoke point, are best for higher-heat cooking. Unrefined oils have a fuller flavor and aroma, but a lower smoke point; reserve them for salad dressings, low-heat sauces, or drizzling over finished dishes.
Packaging Glass bottles help you avoid toxins that may leach into oils from plastic bottles. Dark glass is best; exposure to light can damage oils and destroy antioxidants. Buy smaller bottles, so you'll use the oil while it’s fresh.
Extraction Most conventional oils are extracted with chemical solvents or high heat; expeller-pressed oils are mechanically extracted. Cold-pressing, a method of expeller pressing that keeps temperatures low during extraction, is best at avoiding damage to the subtle flavors of nut and finishing oils.
Storage To further protect oils from light damage, store them in a cool, dark cupboard away from the stove. To further extend an oil's shelf life, store it in the refrigerator.