How Do I Choose The Right Cooking Oil?

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By Mike Speights, Foodery Co-founder

oil

Choosing a cooking oil involves taste, cooking temperature and other factors.

Certain fats are good – let’s just start there. By now we know the basics – our bodies need fat.  Trans fats are unnatural and can be harmful to our bodies.  The unfair villainization of fats dogma has been wearing off and having dozens of oil choices at the store seems to be the popular thing these days.  Of course oils fall into the fats category, and there exists a lot of confusion around this topic.  Often times, cooking oils are selected for merely taste, but nutrition and application are just as critical.  These five points encapsulate our beliefs on ever-important cooking oils:

  1. Not as simple as pinpointing its fatty acid type

It’s a widely accepted truth the trans fats are indeed very bad news for your body.  After all, the majority of these fats don’t occur in nature and are developed in an industrial process of adding hydrogen to vegetable oil.  So which is the healthiest fatty acid type: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or saturated?  Well, it depends.  All cooking oils are some type of combination of these.  For example, palm oil is approximately 40% monounsaturated, 10% polyunsaturated, and 50% saturated.  So, contrary to modern interest group marketing, outside of trans fats, a particular fatty acid can’t be classified as good or bad.  It’s important to know the makeup of the oil, but other factors must be considered.

  1. Use the right smoke point

In general, the smoke point refers to the point at which the oil begins to smoke, generating toxic fumes and harmful free radicals (any oil and food that it comes into contact with that hits a smoke point should be disposed of, and it’s best to avoid breathing these fumes).  The smoke point represents the tipping point, where the oil is completely damaged; however, damage can start even prior to the smoking point if the wrong oil is used for a particular application.  For example, extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of about 375 F, but studies have shown breakdown and nutrient loss at temperatures as low as 320 F.  Lastly, the smoke point is important to know because if it does occur, it increases the likelihood of a flash fire, which is best put out by lidding the pan, using a fire extinguisher, or applying baking soda….and NOT water.

  1. Refined or Unrefined?

The refining process removes impurities from oil, which generally increases the smoke point.  At the same time, it also removes nutrients and reduces flavor.  The reduction of flavor could actually be a positive effect depending on the type of meal it’s being applied to- at times a prominent oil flavor is not wanted.  It’s important to know how the oil was refined.  Generally, there are two basic types of oil refining processes, one of which provides a healthier result.  One process of refining uses harmful chemical and boiling processes, rendering the oil void of nutritional value or even toxic.  Another uses simple pressing techniques without the chemicals (of course, this is the one we prefer).  Take olive oil as an example.  Extra virgin olive oil is typically derived after a single “cold-press” without chemicals or other processing leaving its rich flavor, color, and nutrients.  Virgin olive oil comes from the second “cold-press”, followed by light olive oil, which is anything that remains.  As you can imagine, nutrients, taste, and flavor diminish after each step in the processing.  The price of the oil also diminishes, but the smoke point increases.

Oils to use by cooking category

  1. Dressings, cold or prepared foods, supplementation – these oils contain a majority of polyunsaturated fats and include flaxseed, pumpkin seed, and grapeseed.  They are susceptible to rancidity, so only small amounts should be kept on hand.  Maximum flavor and nutrients will be derived from organic, minimally-processed varieties.
  2. Low heat, light sauté, baking, sauces– these oils contain a majority of monounsaturated fats and include olive oil, hemp, safflower, peanut and sesame oil.  They are also susceptible to rancidity, so only small amounts should be kept on hand.  Maximum flavor and nutrients will be derived from organic minimally-processed varieties.
  3. Med-high heat, sauté, stir fry, searing, baking – some of these oils contain a majority of saturated fats and include coconut oil, palm oil, and grass-fed butter.  These oils are highly stable and have long shelf lives.  Coconut oil, for example, can stay for up to 3 years.  Maximum flavor and nutrients will be derived from organic, minimally-processed varieties.  Another excellent oil in this category is the monounsaturated variety of safflower oil.  As you can guess, this is higher in monounsaturated fats and has one of the highest smoke points of any oil. It doesn’t have the shelf-life of the saturated oils, so purchase minimal amounts and store in a dark, dry area.
  4. Genetically Modified Oils – canola, soy, corn, sunflower, and palm kernel are typically made from genetically modified foods.  Between 80 and 90% of all canola (rape seed), soy, and corn seed are genetically modified and because canola, soy, and corn oils are derived from these seeds, it’s common that these oils contain GMOs.  All five of these oils go through rigorous chemical refinement to yield its final product, rendering them void of nutrition.

At The Foodery, we believe we can all have the best of both worlds- taste and nutrition.  This should not be an either-or proposition.  It often means using shorter, light sautés, steaming, blanching or even combinations of these for vegetable dishes.  This helps to maintain the character of the food for both palate and body.  High heat is rarely ever used (unless searing) as cooking nutrient-dense foods at high heat for longer periods of time greatly diminishes its nutritional value.  Our cooking philosophy brings a wide spectrum of nutrient-dense cooking oils with more diverse flavors.