Let’s face it, even though most of us know that dietary fat isn’t the devil we’ve long been led to believe, it can still be confusing to determine which fats to eat, especially when looking for the best cooking oils. There are so many choices—some withstand heat better; some can drastically alter the taste of dishes (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing); some may be better for baking, some for sautéing, and others may be better without any heat at all. And of course, others should be avoided altogether. Most of us have heard that olive oil is a good choice. But how well does it stand up to heat? What about coconut oil? Or avocado, seed, or nut oils? Should you just stick with the traditional oils for cooking?
When it comes down to the best cooking oils, how you’re preparing the food is probably the most important consideration. If you’re stir-frying or sautéing, you will likely use a higher heat, so the smoke point (that is, when the oil starts smoking and thus burning) of your oils can quickly turn a good fat into a bad-tasting, bad-for-you (due to the increase of harmful free radicals), rancid fat.
Let’s start by looking at the best cooking oils for high-heat applications.
Best Cooking Oils for High Heat
• Avocado oil: With a higher smoking point (480+ degrees F), avocado has a nice, mellow, yet creamy flavor that tastes great in stir-fries and is also a good option for cooking. It can be used for sautéing, searing, grilling, and roasting as it withstands higher temperatures well. Though it can be a bit pricy, it provides both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids and is also a rich source of vitamin E and oleic acid (a very healthy fat),1 so you get good bang for your buck. Interestingly, this oil has also been shown to increase the absorption of carotenoids from salsa and salads by up to 17.4 fold.2 Avocado oil is also high in lutein, known for its eye health benefits.3 Note that avocado oil that is advertised as having a higher smoke point is refined. Virgin avocado oil will be higher in antioxidants, but will have a lower smoke point, so it is best used for drizzling on salads and low-heat applications.
• Ghee: Ghee is similar to clarified butter, which is butter that’s been heated to remove the milk solids and moisture. However, ghee is simmered longer, so it has a higher smoke point (at 485 degrees F) than butter (at 350 degrees F) or clarified butter, so it’s a great option for baking, sautéing, and roasting. It’s also loaded with fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K. If you are sensitive to milk sensitivity, ghee may still be worth investigating as it’s free from lactose and casein proteins, the two milk compounds most likely to cause reactions. Other nutrients found in ghee are conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and butyrate. Ideally, you’ll want to look for organic ghee from grass-fed, pasture-raised cows.
• Peanut oil: Looking for a nutty flavor? Try peanut oil. It is high in monounsaturated fats yet also performs well at high heat and can be used for stir-frying with a smoke point between 440 and 450 degrees F. It’s popular in Asian dishes and can also be used for frying potatoes and meats, though fried foods aren’t something you want to eat regularly (if you want to enjoy a healthy, lean body). Peanut oil is 20% saturated fat, 50% monounsaturated (specifically oleic acid, the same healthy fat found in olive oil), and 30% polyunsaturated. On the other hand, it’s a good source of the antioxidant vitamin E.
• Sesame oil: Another flavorful oil (a little goes a long way) with a high smoke point (350 for unrefined and 410 degrees F for regular) for higher heat recipes, sesame oil provides both monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids and is also high in antioxidants. Interestingly, in a small study from India, sesame oil was shown to help reduce blood pressure and support weight loss when consumed daily.4 And it may also have a positive effect on blood sugar levels.5 There are darker sesame oils that are richer in flavors and lighter oils that are more mild (and more refined).
• Other options: Sustainably-sourced palm oil, animal fat (e.g., beef, bacon, and duck fat), cocoa butter
Best Cooking Oils for Low to Medium Heats
• Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO): Perhaps the most popular, versatile, health-enhancing oil is olive oil.8 It goes well on salads and also does well in numerous recipes. Seek out the extra virgin olive oil as it’s not refined or highly processed. Though it can be used in baking, it does have a lower smoke point (320 degrees F), so it shouldn’t be used in high-heat environments such as grilling, broiling, or sautéing. There is one caveat with olive oil as many store-bought brands have been shown to not contain what’s on the label. So, do your research to ensure you’re buying real, authentic extra virgin olive oil rather than olive oil blended with cheaper vegetable oils or “pure” (i.e., lighter and refined) olive oil.
• Coconut Oil: There’s been a fair bit of controversy when it comes to coconut oil with some suggesting it’s a miracle food and others recommending avoiding it altogether due to its saturated fat content. Check out the link above to learn the truth about coconut oil. For our purposes here, we’ll just examine why coconut oil is one of the best cooking oils. Coconut oil is unusual for a plant oil in that it is mostly saturated fat, which is why it’s solid at room temperature. The saturated fat content also makes it more stable when heated, although it shouldn’t be used at higher heats since it has a smoke point of 350 degrees F. Coconut oil works well in most recipes that call for butter, lard, or margarine.
• Other options: Macadamia nut oil, virgin avocado oil, almond oil
Oils to Enjoy with No Heat
• Flaxseed oil: This is another healthy oil that’s high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. Yet it also has a very low smoking point (225 degrees F) and should be avoided when cooking.7 Instead, try drizzling it over salads or cooked veggies or use it as part of your salad dressing. Once opened, remember to store it in the refrigerator and toss it if the taste turns sour or bitter or the smell is “off,” letting you know the oil has gone rancid.
• Walnut oil: Like many other nut oils, is delicious and provides the right ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (including ALA) as well as vitamin K and is high in polyunsaturated fats. However, it has a lower smoke point (320 degrees F) and should be avoided when cooking. Feel free to use it as a salad dressing base to drizzle over vegetables or even chilled chicken or tuna salads. This is another oil to store in the fridge.
• Other options: Extra virgin olive oil, virgin avocado oil, macadamia nut oil, almond oil
Cooking Oils to Limit
• Vegetable Oils (such as sunflower, safflower, corn, cottonseed, and soybean): While these were once believed to be the healthiest oils, we are now discovering that’s not necessarily the case. Because these oils are typically highly refined, bleached, and deodorized (read: heavily processed), they tend to lack nutrients. And due to the processing of these oils, they have already been exposed to high heats and often are already at least partially rancid. Plus, these light oils lack flavor. They also have unfavorable fatty acid profiles, as they’re particularly high in omega-6 fats, which can drive inflammation in the body when consumed excessively. We highly recommend ditching them in favor of the best cooking oils discussed above.
• Canola (aka rapeseed) oil: Canola is often recommended as one of the best and most versatile oils as it’s both low in saturated fats and has a higher smoke point (350 degrees F). Unfortunately, in the U.S., it’s also very likely to be highly processed and lacking of much, if any, nutrition value. And canola is also very likely to be genetically modified (GMO). Canola is also rich in polyunsaturated fats, and while manufacturers are quick to point out that those are healthy fats, they’re highly unstable when heated and are very susceptible to oxidation, which results in the production of free radicals, harmful compounds, and rancidification. This oil needs to stay on the shelf!
Cooking Oils to Avoid (at all costs)
If you haven’t gotten the memo yet, you’ll definitely want to ditch hydrogenated oils (aka trans-fats), which have absolutely no health benefits in any amount and cause inflammation, raise LDL cholesterol, and increase the risk of heart disease. Even the FDA has determined they are not safe for human consumption. This includes shortening, margarine, and hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils found in many processed foods.
It’s also a good idea to leave corn oil and sunflower oil on the shelf as they’ve been shown to produce high amounts of the potentially cancer-causing aldehydes when heated—up to 20 times higher than what’s recommended by the World Health Organization.9
Best Cooking Oils: A Recap
Most oils can be stored in the cupboard or pantry as long as they’re away from excess heat or moisture (other than those already mentioned to store in the fridge, of course). It’s also best to buy oils you don’t use as often in smaller bottles that are protected by darker glass, as this helps protect the oils for longer.
All oils will get stale or rancid if kept too long after being opened. Most oils will last for six to eight months, with olive oil typically lasting about a year.