A wealth of studies consistently show that replacing butter with olive oil boosts health and longevity. But olive oil isn’t the only option. Here’s a look at some of the most commonly used cooking oils and how to use them for good health and great taste.
Extra-virgin olive oil
EVOO for short, this oil is mostly monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA). The American Heart Association notes that for good health, most dietary fats should be monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
EVOO is an integral part of the Mediterranean diet, which is also renowned for its health benefits. Depending on the olives used and the freshness of the oil, the taste of EVOO can range from grassy to peppery to spicy, so look for a store that will let you sample before buying. Zesty olive oil is often a sign of its polyphenol (good-for-you antioxidants) content. Pay attention to bottling dates and choose the freshest you can find, as polyphenols lose their potency over time. Skip olive oil labeled “pure,” as it is a highly refined product.
- Homemade dips, vinaigrettes, and other salad dressings. Use on greens, chicken, vegetables, and legumes such as beans and lentils.
- Baking and roasting up to 400°F. Toss veggies in olive oil, sprinkle on herbs, and roast on a rimmed sheet pan for 30 minutes.
- Sautéing, braising, and stewing on the stovetop.
- Air frying. Drizzle over your ingredients along with seasonings. (Make cleanup easier and prolong the life of your air fryer by using liners.)
- As a final drizzle to add flavor to hot and cold dishes.
- Replace half of the butter in recipes like hollandaise sauce.
This is a mild tasting oil, so you might prefer it to EVOO for baking and dishes with a delicate taste. It won’t overpower them. It’s similarly rich in polyphenols, other antioxidants, and MUFAs. Its smoke point (up to 375°F for unrefined avocado oil and up to 520°F for refined) means you can cook with it at high temperatures before the heat will negatively affect its flavor.
- Homemade dips and salad dressings.
- Sautéing and flash-frying. Use it to quickly cook very thin filets of white fish.
- Roasting vegetables.
This is oil extracted from seeds of grapes that were pressed for juice or wine. It’s a good all-purpose oil that’s mild in flavor and, with a smoke point of 390°F, can be used for many cooking methods.
- Homemade dressings.
- Pan-frying in a shallow skillet. This is great for a crispy finish without deep frying. The shorter the contact with oil, the less your food will soak up.
- Scrambling eggs.
Made from raw (rather than roasted) sesame seeds, it imparts a tahini-like flavor to foods.
- In Asian and Mediterranean recipes, from stir-frying to sautéing and cooking methods up to 410°F.
Nut and seed oils
These are very often delicate oils that burn quickly when heated, but are delicious in dressings and as a drizzle on finished dishes. Most are rich in polyunsaturated fats or PUFAs. Because they’re fragile, store them in the fridge.
- Use toasted sesame oil, which has a deep flavor, for Asian dipping sauces and as a final drizzle over cooked dishes when you want its distinctive taste.
- Use flaxseed oil, made from flax seeds and high in the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, for dressings, dips, and even smoothies.
- Use walnut oil for salad dressings and as a finishing oil to enhance dishes with nuts.
Some additional oil options should be reserved for occasional use because of their omega-6 fatty acid content. While omega-6 fatty acids are PUFAs with many beneficial roles in the body, elevated intake may promote unhealthy inflammation.
A healthy diet contains a balance of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish, flaxseed, and fish oil supplements. For general health, aim for a ratio of 2:1 to 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-6 fatty acids may benefit some medical conditions. If you have eczema, psoriasis, arthritis, or diabetes, talk to your doctor about recommended omega-6 intake.
Safflower and sunflower oils
These are both all-purpose oils with neutral tastes and very high smoke points: 510°F for safflower and 450°F for sunflower.
- High-heat cooking methods.
- Dressings and sauces.
This is a general all-purpose and mild-tasting oil that won’t impart any noticeable flavor of its own to dishes.
- Stir-frying at high heat, especially for Asian dishes.
- Deep frying at up to 450°F.
Pressed from the rapeseed plant, canola oil has a thicker mouthfeel than olive and avocado oils, so it’s not as good in delicate dishes and doesn’t enhance roasted vegetables the way they do.
On the other hand, it’s usually inexpensive and thereby cost effective when you need a large quantity.
Cold Pressed or Refined?
The cost of cooking oils, as well as their individual nutrient profiles, are often related to the processing method used to make them. Oils labeled “cold-pressed” or “expeller-pressed” were extracted without heat or chemicals and are more expensive. Oils labeled “refined” were extracted using heat and solvents and then bleached (to remove the solvents) and deodorized. Refining enables manufacturers to get the most oil possible from the plant source, enabling them to sell it more cheaply, but some nutrients will be lost in the process.
You might decide to spend more money on higher-quality oils that you value for their taste, such as olive oil for your vinaigrette, and less on oils you use in bulk, say canola for occasional deep frying. But resist becoming obsessed over all the nuances between oils: You’re already making a huge stride toward better health by replacing saturated fats with unsaturated ones. Take a big-picture view when it comes to the guiding principles of nutrition, such as following the Mediterranean diet, enjoying the act of cooking, and engaging with friends and family. Everything can fit into your lifestyle, even occasional French fries, as long as you learn to listen when your body says, “I’ve had enough.”
Note: To keep oils fresh, store them in a cool cabinet, away from the heat of your oven or, for very delicate oils, in the fridge.