A common question I’m asked in practice is “what’s the best oil to use when frying”.
My response is typically something alone of the lines of: “none- you should be doing more baking/grilling/broiling” etc.
I know I’m a snarky-pants.
Another question I hear quite often is: “olive oil is the best, right?”
Well that depends. It depends what you are using it for. Different oils have different nutrient profiles, and various “concentrations” of monounsaturated (MUFAs), polyunsaturated (PUFAs), and saturated fats. And different oils also have different smoke points (those with higher smoke points are better for frying or sautéing, those with lower smoke points are better used for dressings), and different oils also pair better with different types of foods (fish, veggies, etc).
Remember that when we talk about fats – there are fats that are considered to have more harmful or negative impacts on heart health – like saturated fats and trans fats. These have both been shown to have impacts of raising total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
Fats that are more positive, and considered to be more “heart healthy” are MUFAs and PUFAs, (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats). Additionally there are also Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids – which fall into the PUFA family. Sources of these various foods can found in the link below.
So let’s “oil up”
>Olive Oil: There is enough evidence out there to show that if you are selecting a quality olive oil (cold pressed, extra virgin), it is a good source of monounsaturated fats – which are beneficial for heart health. Use olive oil for: dressings, sautés, cakes, for dipping, and for frying vegetables and meats. Olive oil has a smoke point between about: 380-410, so provided it does not have any impurities it is fine to use for frying – for the occasion frying needs to be done. Olive oil is my “go-to”, but sometimes I am just looking for a different flavor than olive oil.
>Grapeseed Oil: extracted from grapes, is actually a byproduct of wine making. This oil is a really rich source of PUFAs, and has a moderately high smoke point – therefore it’s good for sautés and frying, but also for dips, and dressings, and on vegetables
>Sunflower Oil: There are both refined and unrefined varieties of sunflower oils. There are also different versions of the sunflower oils that have different fatty acid contents (some higher in PUFAs, some higher in MUFAs). Unrefined sunflower oil, will break down at higher temps, so use it for finishing and for dressings. Refined oils have higher smoke points and a neutral flavor, making it ideal for better high heat cooking like baking, frying, and sautéing
>Canola Oil: So there is a fair amount of debate about whether canola oil is as great as it’s cracked up to be. It’s cracked up to be pretty great – as it kind of takes second fiddle to olive oil and its health benefits. Canola oil is low in saturated fat, and high in MUFAs and PUFAs- even Omega 3’s. It has a very mild flavor and high smoke point, so it is extremely versatile to use from everything from cooking, sautéing, to coating pots, and even with grilling. The main issue people take with canola oil is that it does not directly come from something (olive oil from olives, walnut oil from walnuts etc). However, as it stands – the evidence that says canola oil is “fine” outweighs any evidence that says it’s not. I PERSONALLY do not use it a lot -except in baking. I personally and professionally feel that in the right portion (1 tsp-2 tsp) used sparingly will not have a negative impact.
>Avocado oil: Avocado oil has a beautiful green hue, and a somewhat rich and butter-like flavor/consistency. It has a really high (70%) concentration of MUFAs, and has a high smoke point, so it’s really versatile – it can be used for sautéing, and frying, but also in dressings, and to finish foods (it can be used in place of butter – like on a baked potato).
>Flaxseed oil: Flax oil has a really low smoke point – so it’s best for dressings or drizzling an already finished food item, or infusing with vinegars and/or herbs, and it’s also a good source of Omega’s
>Almond oil: Almond oil is another versatile oil, it is a good source of MUFAs, and PUFAs as well. It’s great to use for fish, and for baking meats and vegetables, salad dressings, and even for baking – it can impart great flavor in baked goods, and stir fries as well.
>Walnut Oil: I really like walnut oil, I personally use it a fair amount (I like drizzling it on arugula or fresh greens), to put on top of steamed vegetables, because it has a really low smoke point. I also use it to make dressings as well. Walnut oil should be stored in the refrigerator.
>Peanut oil: With it’s high smoke point and distinct flavor peanut oil is a glorious staple in Asian inspired dishes. It contains MUFAs and Vitamin E, and compliments many traditional Asian flavors very well (like ginger).
>Sesame oil: speaking of traditional Asian flavors – sesame oil, like peanut oil, has a high smoke point & is a great source of MUFAs, so it’s great in stir fries, sautés, and even as a dressing.
>Coconut Oil: Coconut oil has gained a huge amount of popularity in the last year or so. It is harvested from mature coconuts, and it has a high smoke point – so it is very versatile, and imparts a lightly sweet flavor (I personally use it for sautéing greens). However it is a significant source of saturate fats, however it contains lauric acid – a medium chain fatty acid which is metabolized quite differently than the short chain fatty acids found in saturated fat dense butter.
>Corn Oil: This is an all purpose oil that is a source of PUFAs, and has a high smoke point. It is great in southwestern dishes, and using in soups, stews, quesadillas, etc.
>Pumpkin Seed Oil: This is on my “to buy list”, similarly to avocado oil, it has a deep beautiful color, and a rich flavor. This oil delivers a nice serving (but not as nice as walnut oil) of linolenic acid. This works great to finish a dish, over soups, or as a salad dressing.
Despite the fact we have talked about a lot of fats, remember that while not all fats are created equals – fats are fats, and per gram will have the most calories of any macronutrient group. Remember that a “serving” of fat is equal to 1 tsp, so in the case of fats it’s good to remember that less is more. Remember if you start getting heavy handed with multiple oils in one or more meals throughout the day – may gain weight as 1 Tbsp of most oils are in the neighborhood of 100-140 kcals.
Like most things there is a message here about portion sizes 🙂 However, oils are a great way to impart new and different flavors to classic dishes, and even add a new zip to a favorite salad or green.