Here Are Healthy Ways to Use Every Kind of Cooking Oil
Oil is every cook’s go-to fat, in part because of its versatility but also for its ability to make food so tasty. Fat tenderizes and conducts heat, letting us cook foods well past the boiling point of water in order to dry out their surface. This is how, with a little oil in the pan, we get a perfectly crusted steak or a crisp shell on a cube of tofu. But despite its workhorse status, oil is often a second-rate ingredient in too many kitchens; too often, what’s most affordable and easiest to find determines which varieties end up in our pantries, and quality, taste, and diversity often take a back seat.
Calorie-wise, oils are all about the same (120 calories per tablespoon), as is their fat content (around 14g per tablespoon). And they’re devoid of protein, sodium, and fiber. But where oils differ is in their fat composition, with some having more saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated fats than others. Most oils predominately comprise polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, but all oils have a little bit of each type of fat in them. Saturated fat is the one to limit as it raises your blood cholesterol. The two unsaturated fats are so-called healthy fats because research shows they’re good for your heart and brain. You can enjoy them more liberally, but understand that you shouldn’t deploy them with wild abandon because calories will skyrocket.
There are other ways fat is good for us, too: It helps our cells “speak” to one another, is key for neurological development, and helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins (like vitamins A, D, E, and K) and some plant pigments, such as lycopene in red-hued produce.
See, you need fat. So dig in: We rounded up our favorite oils and created tasty recipes so you can try them out. We hope you’ll find a new oil to add to your pantry.
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1. Avocado Oil
SMOKE POINT: 520°F (refined) (Note: All smoke points listed are from common brands. Smoke points can vary based on processing.)
This slightly green oil is buttery with a mild avocado flavor. It has a high monounsaturated fat content that's similar to olive oil, but thanks to a higher smoke point, it is quite versatile in the kitchen. Avocado oil also boosts eye-healthy lutein; cholesterol-lowering phytosterols; and—in virgin varieties—chlorophyll, which is good for detoxifying cancer-causing compounds.
Try it in: Garlic-Soy Chicken Stir-Fry
Editors' recommend: Ahuacatlan Avocado Oil, $20
2. Coconut Oil
SMOKE POINT: 280°F (virgin); 365°F (refined)
You'll find refined, virgin (unrefined), and liquid coconut oil on store shelves. Virgin delivers bold coconut flavor that's reminiscent of summer beach trips. The refined and liquid versions are milder. Coconut oil has more saturated fat than butter at 11g per tablespoon. Research shows the tropical oil raises your "good" HDL cholesterol, but it also boosts your "bad" LDL cholesterol, which ups heart disease risk. Per a 2017 report from the American Heart Association, the benefits don't outweigh the risks—so use it sparingly.
Try it in: Coconut Oil Waffles
Editors' recommend: Trader Joe's Organic Virgin Coconut Oil, $14
3. Sesame Oil
SMOKE POINT: 350°F (toasted); 445°F (refined)
Uniquely equal parts mono- and polyunsaturated fats, sesame oil is packed with lignans, compounds that may help improve cholesterol and blood pressure. In one small study, adults on blood pressure meds who used sesame oil as their exclusive oil for 45 days saw their blood pressure dip to a healthy range. After they stopped? Their pressure returned to their above-average baseline. You'll see two sesame oils: regular/light and toasted/dark. Toasted has a most robust nutty flavor, which we prefer.
Try it in: Thai-Style Aioli
Editors' recommend: Spectrum Organic Toasted Sesame Oil, $7
4. Red Palm Oil
SMOKE POINT: 450°F
Semisolid with a buttery, mild, carrotlike taste, red palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of the palm tree. Its red hue is thanks to carotenoids (eye-healthy compounds also in red produce). Because red palm oil has more saturated fat than most oils (about 8g per tablespoon) and also contains squalene, which promotes cholesterol production, it is another oil to limit. Also, much of our palm oil production is environmentally unfriendly, so look for the label "Palm Done Right"—an organization known for sustainable production.
Try it in: Collard and Chickpea Salad
Editors' recommend: Nutiva Organic Red Palm Oil, $10
5. Walnut Oil
SMOKE POINT: 320°F
With either a bold (roasted walnut oil) or mild (regular) nutty taste, this oil is rich in polyunsaturated fats and one of the few to delivery heart-healthy omega-3 fat alpha linoleic acid (ALA). Research suggests that walnut oil may improve blood sugar control. In a July 2016 study, adults with type 2 diabetes who added about 1 tablespoon of walnut oil to their daily diet for three months had better blood sugar control than diabetics who didn't eat walnut oil.
Try it in: Pasta Aglio e Olio
Editors' recommend: La Tourangelle Roasted Walnut Oil, $10
5 More Oils to Buy
THE WORKHORSE CLASS
SMOKE POINT: 468°F
Canola is a go-to-oil at Cooking Light. We use it to sauté, oven-fry, and bake due to its neutral taste and high smoke point—the temp at which your oil literally begins to smoke. All cooking fats (butter and lard, too!) have a smoke point. When you cook it to or past its smoke point, it'll taste scorched or rancid—and not only do the good-for-you compounds start to breakdown, but health-harming ones form. Canola, like walnut oil, is one of the few oils that's rich in omega-3 fat ALA—and research shows it may help lower total and "bad" LDL cholesterol.
SMOKE POINT: 428°F (refined); 331°F (unrefined)
Well-known for its heart-healthy benefits, extra-virgin olive oil is frequently used in the Cooking Light Kitchen, mostly as a finishing oil, meaning you use it to add flavor and texture to a finished dish. (Think: dressing a salad, drizzling on roasted vegetables or fish, etc.) Research shows it can lower your risk of heart disease and death from heart disease. Other research shows it's good for your brain by possibly lowering your risk of Alzheimer's and dementia, improving the speed at which you think, and decreasing your risk of depression.
SMOKE POINT: 453°F
This underutilized oil deserves a little more attention. Its high smoke point and very mild corn flavor make it an all-purpose oil—use it in baking, grilling, and sautéing. It's also healthier than you might think: Corn oil is the cooking oil richest in phytosterols, which are plant-based micronutrients that can reduce the amount of cholesterol your gut absorbs. One study (funded by Mazola, a company that produces corn oil) showed that people who ate foods made with corn oil lowered their cholesterol more than when they ate the same foods made with olive oil.
THE SPECIALTY CREW
SMOKE POINT: 471°F (refined); 320°F (unrefined)
You're probably most familiar with refined peanut oil; it's very mild in flavor, as it has been bleached and deodorized. Because of its processing, all of the allergenic proteins have been stripped away, so refined peanut oil is safe for people with peanut allergies. Lesser-known gourmet peanut oil adds a delicious roasted peanut aroma and taste to food. It also boasts more good-for-you phytosterols, but it still contains allergenic proteins. Peanut oil also contains resveratrol, the brain- and heart-healthy compound that we associate with red wine.
Editors' recommend: Spectrum Unrefined Peanut Oil, $8
SMOKE POINT: 435°F
A byproduct of wine-making, grape seeds yield a light, neutral-tasting oil, which encourages the flavors of your ingredients to really shine. Its neutral flavor is also good for blending into salad dressings. Its high smoke point makes it ideal for sautéing and stir-frying. Numerous studies have found that grapeseed oil has both cancer-fighting and heart health-promoting benefits (thanks to its phenolic compounds), but the research is still young, and the amount of oil necessary to reap those benefits is often more than what's commonly consumed.
Editors' recommend: Pompeian Grapeseed Oil, $6