Aug. 18. 2017
McKel Hill, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill, MS, RDN, LDN


Which cooking oil is best to use, and why?

Today I hope to untangle some confusion around something most of us probably use every day: oils. I use oils in salad dressings, in baking, for cooking vegetables, making raw treats, and the list goes on. But what is the nutritional value of these oils, and how does it affect or benefit our health?

Cooking oils are fats, fats are essential to overall health. Fat can also add incredible flavor, help the absorption of nutrients and are used to create a heat-conducting lubricant (think, sautéeing vegetables) so that food can be heated and cooked without sticking to your pan. Every oil has a “smoke point”, which is the temperature at which an oil starts to smoke continuously–no need to worry if you see a little bit of smoke, but if it is continuous while cooking your oil has probably reached this point. If an oil has reached its smoke point, it has been heated to the point where the minerals in the oil have started to break down and oxidize (meaning bond with oxygen), creating potentially harmful free radicals that you don’t want to be consuming (for bonus reading on free radicals, check out this article). At this point, oils will also produce acrolein, the chemical that gives burnt food a bitter, unpleasant flavor and smell.

There are two main types of oils: refined (or processed) and unrefined (typically cold-pressed). Refined oils are heated during production and often processed with chemicals, which increases their shelf lives and their smoke points but also eliminates many of the healthful vitamins and nutrients. Unrefined oils are not processed and are typically bottled immediately after pressing. Technically, any oil can not be heated past 120°F to be considered truly cold-pressed. Unrefined oils have strong, robust flavors and are higher in nutrients and minerals, but they also have a lower average smoke point and a shorter shelf life than their refined counterparts.

In a nutshell, refined oils have a higher smoke point and are better for cooking, while unrefined or cold-pressed oils are more nutrient dense but break down at a lower temperature. Below I’ve shared a breakdown of some of the oils that I use, their health benefits, and what dishes and recipes they fit in with best!

No. 1: Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Let’s start with olive oil since it is one of the most popular and widely used oils. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, cold-pressed olive oil. It is high in Vitamin E and antioxidants, has anti-inflammatory properties, and improves the HDL: LDL ratio of cholesterol to keep a healthy heart. It also has amazing flavors, which is why it is so prevalent in the cooking community. Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 325-375°F, so it is much better used for salad dressings, dips, and low-temperature recipes. That being said, I do cook with extra virgin olive oil sometimes because it tastes so good (this recipe is one of my favorites)! If you choose to use this oil, keep an eye on the stove top and keep the temperatures as low as possible.

No. 2: “Pure” or “Light” Olive Oil

I think it’s pretty confusing to market a processed version of something pure. However, “pure”,”light”, or any other description of olive oil that isn’t “extra virgin” is refined and processed to neutralize flavor, increase the shelf life, and bring up that smoke point to about 465°F. This process also strips the product of its antioxidants, vitamins, and other benefits from using the cold-pressed version. This type of olive oil won’t break down as quickly as extra virgin olive oil when heated, so it’s best for high-temperature cooking.

No. 3: Coconut Oil

Another favorite oil of mine (and popular topic these days!) is coconut oil. Coconut oil is the edible oil extracted or pressed from the mature coconut meat. This oil will be solid at room temperature and melts around 76 degrees F, with a smoke point of 350°F. Coconut oil is amazing for baking and has an incredibly sweet, tropical flavor. BONUS: use it in your beauty routine!

No. 4: Avocado Oil

The #avocadolove continues! This cold-pressed oil is incredibly versatile, with a smoke point of 375-400°F and a neutral flavor that carries other, stronger flavors very well. One of the downsides to this oil is that it is much more expensive than other unrefined options, but it is a great healthy option from time to time!

No. 5: Flax Oil

Unrefined Flax oil is not good for cooking, as it has a very low smoke point and breaks down easily with heat. However, this oil is an amazing vegan source of omega-3s with a great nutty flavor, so I like to use it in salad dressings or in my smoothies for an omega-3 boost!

No. 6: Sunflower Oil

Sunflower oil (pressed from sunflower seeds) is high in Vitamin E and low in saturated fats. It has a high smoke point (440°F), as well as a pleasant, light flavor making it a great oil candidate for lots of recipes! I prefer olive oil myself, but sunflower oil is a great alternative.

No. 7: Sesame Oil

Sesame oil has an incredibly strong flavor, so I like to use it in stir fry or other Asian dishes. Cold-pressed sesame oil has a high smoke point, so it’s great for frying up some flavorful veggies on the stovetop!

Which oils do you use for cooking? What questions do you have about these ingredients? Share them and ask in the comments below! 

xx McKel