These days there are plenty of options when it comes to choosing an oil to cook with. But which oil is best and are some healthier than others? Here we break down how to choose, store and cook with different oils.
Choosing an oil
There are a few things to consider when choosing an oil to cook with:
Do you want the oil to add flavour to the dish? Extra virgin olive oil is great for this purpose as it has a robust flavour, making it a winning choice for dressing salads or drizzling over a dishe oil. Nut and seed oils like sesame, hazelnut and almond oil are also great options for adding delicate flavours, while flavoured oils that are infused with garlic, chilli and herbs can add a quick flavour burst to a dish. If a recipe or dish requires neutral oils that don’t impart any flavour, opt for peanut, grape seed, or rice bran oil.
Are you heating the oil to a high heat? All oils have a smoke point, which is the temperature at which the heated oil produces smoke, causing the quality of the oil to degrade. This can turn the chemical structure of a healthy oil into an unhealthy oil, and produce unpleasant flavours.
Oils like rice bran, sunflower and peanut oil have a high smoke point and are ideal for high heat cooking, like frying or searing, as they can reach temperatures of over 240◦C. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point reaching around 210 ◦C but can still be used for sautéing and light frying (i.e softening onions and garlic). Refined olive oil, often called ‘light’ or ‘pure’ oil can be heated to a higher heat of around 230◦C which suits most cooking purposes.
Which oils are best for health? Oils have different fat profiles and health benefits. A healthy diet has a balance of monounsaturated and poly unsaturated fat, with a small amount of saturated fat. The information below shows which type of fat common oils predominantly contain.
Olive, peanut, avocado, macadamia, flaxseed, sunflower and canola oils are all high in monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats help to lower bad LDL cholesterol. Olive oil in particular contains polyphenols and vitamin E that is protective against cancer and heart disease.
Grapeseed, walnut, soybean and vegetable oils are all high in polyunsaturated fat. While these fats don’t necessarily lower LDL cholesterol, they don’t raise it either so there are still health benefits.
Palm oil and coconut oil are rich in saturated fat. Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat. While results of research into the health benefits of ‘lauric acid’, the type of saturated fat’ found in coconut oil, are yet to be confirmed, it’s best to use it sparingly.
Don’t be fooled by marketing
The use of the term ‘light’ on oil packaging refers to the colour and taste of the oil – not its kilojoules or fat content. Another common claim seen on oil labels is that the product is ‘cholesterol free’. Cholesterol is only present in animal products and oils are generally plant- based so all oils are already cholesterol free.
Storing oils safely
- Once opened, oils can go rancid quickly because they are exposed to oxygen and light. It’s best to buy oil in small volumes so that you use them within a few months.
- Store bottles in a cool, dark place with the cap tightly closed and use them within a few months.
- Some delicate nut oils like almond and hazelnut are best stored in the fridge to maintain their freshness.
Choose primarily monounsaturated fat based oils like olive oil. Having an extra virgin and ‘light’ olive oil in your pantry means you can use these for low and high heat cooking and reap the benefits of the high antioxidant content of olive oil. Purchase smaller volumes of oil and store them in a cool dark place to ensure they don’t turn rancid. Discard any oil that has passed its best before date or has been stored incorrectly as it won’t be great for the flavour of your dishes or your health.