Fat is an essential component to a well-balanced and nourishing diet. And cooking with healthy oils adds flavor as well as increases the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).
However, some oils are healthier than others. And even the healthiest cooking oils can be harmful if not used or stored properly.
Key Factors in Choosing the Healthiest Cooking Oils
There are three factors that come into play when determining which cooking oils to use. The first is chemical stability.
Chemical stability refers to oil’s ability to resist oxidation, which occurs when fats are exposed to heat, light, or air. The oxidation process generates free radicals. Thus, when oxidized fats are consumed, they have the potential to cause cell damage, inflammation, and premature aging among other things.
As a rule of thumb, saturated fats are most chemically stable. This includes butter, ghee, coconut oil, and rendered animal fats (i.e., lard and tallow). The least chemically stable oils are polyunsaturated fats, which includes nut, seed, and vegetable oils (i.e., canola, sunflower, safflower, soybean, and corn).
The second factor in choosing which oils to use is smoke point. This is a specific temperature at which oil begins to breakdown and form harmful compounds as a result of oxidation. You’ll know this has happened if the oil begins to emit a bluish smoke.
The third factor is how the oil is processed. For example, while vegetable oils tend to have high smoke points (400 - 500 degrees Fahrenheit), they're extracted using chemicals and extremely high temperatures.
The oils are stripped of nutrients. And the high temperatures from processing vegetable oils alone can cause oxidation and create rancid oils right from the get go. However, the oils are deodorized and bleached to give them a neutral flavor and clean appearance so you would never know. For these reasons, we don't recommend cooking with vegetables oils.
Instead, we recommend extra virgin, cold-pressed oils (unrefined), which are processed at low temperatures and retain their natural aroma, flavor, and nutrients. Expeller-pressed is second best, which uses a mechanical process as opposed to chemicals.
Based on these three factors above, we've compiled a list of the top 5 healthiest cooking oils below...
Butter is chemically stable and delicious! It's great for baking as well as sweating and gently sautéing.
In terms of nutrition, butter is a great source of vitamins A, D, and K. It also contains a short chain fatty acid known as butyrate, which supports optimal colon health and reduces inflammation.
Butter has a smoke point of approximately 350 degree Fahrenheit, and it browns quickly. Thus, for higher heat applications, ghee is a better option.
Ghee is made by gently simmering butter to remove its water and milk solids (sugars and proteins). This process increases its smoke point (450 to 485 degrees Fahrenheit). Thus, ghee is a great cooking fat for most applications, including searing and stir-frying. Plus, it adds a delicious nutty flavor to food.
Ghee has the same nutritional benefits as butter. However, since it doesn't contain milk sugars or proteins, those with dairy sensitivities or intolerances to lactose usually tolerate it well.
Coconut oil is a chemically stable saturated fat. It's extra virgin form offers a subtle coconut taste as well as numerous health benefits. For instance, it's antimicrobial and anti-fungal. It's also easy to digest and provides a quick source of energy.
Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it best suited for baking and sweating as well as gently sautéing and roasting.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
There's no question about the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil. It's loaded with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds as well as vitamin E. Thus, it helps to protect against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many other modern diseases.
For these reasons, we highly recommend cooking with extra virgin olive oil as well as using it to make delicious dressings, sauces, and dips.
However, there is controversy surrounding its use. Many sources only recommend using olive oil for low-heat cooking or salad dressings. But, science has shown that extra virgin olive oil is extremely capable of resisting oxidation due to its antioxidant power.
In fact, it took 24 hours of constant deep-frying before olive oil began to break down and form damaging compounds in this study. And in this study, olive oil retained most of its health benefits after 36 hours of cooking at 356 degrees Fahrenheit.
We think it's worth noting that deep-frying temperatures typically fall between 350 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Roasting temperatures range from 250 to 450 degrees. And while broiling, searing, and stir-frying occur at high temperatures, the cooking time is often short.
Therefore, it's safe to say olive oil makes a great cooking oil for baking, sweating, sautéing, and roasting. But, it's important to note that the type and quality of olive oil matters.
Extra virgin olive oil (as opposed to virgin olive oil or olive oil) contains the highest concentration of antioxidants. And depending on its quality, extra virgin olive oil can have a smoke point up to 410 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cold-pressed extra virgin avocado oil is another great option for cooking. In addition to containing health promoting fatty acids and potent antioxidant compounds, avocado oil has a smoke point up to 520 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on its quality). While this makes it a great choice for high heat cooking, unrefined avocado oil also works nicely in dips, sauces, and dressings.
Nut & Seed Oils
Unrefined and minimally processed oils from nuts and seeds have limited stability. This includes oils from flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, walnuts, and hazelnuts.
Therefore, they are not recommended for cooking. However, they work great in dressings or they can be added toward the end of cooking or after cooking to enhance flavor.
How to Safely Store Cooking Oils
Keep in mind that heat, light, and air can cause oxidation. Therefore, fats and oils must be stored properly to maintain their freshness and health promoting properties.
Butter and ghee should be stored in the refrigerated. All other cooking oils should be stored in dark glass bottles, tightly sealed, in a cabinet, and away from heat. This means your oils should not be kept on the counter next to the stove.
Since nut and seed oils are particularly sensitive to oxidation, we suggest buying them as needed and in small quantities.
To Sum it Up...
Choosing the healthiest cooking oils depends on:
- Chemical stability
- Smoke point
Based on these factors, the oils we use and recommend include:
- Extra virgin coconut oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Extra virgin avocado oil
These cooking oils promote health, prevent disease, and taste absolutely delicious!