Anti-Aging: Cooking Oil 101 - How to Choose


There are many factors to consider when choosing an oil to cook with, such as taste, smoke point, and health benefits.

Selecting which cooking oil to use for any cooking project can be difficult, especially if the huge array of oils on the grocery store shelf are unfamiliar. Information is the best way to beat back that confusion.

Quick Cooking Oil Glossary

First, a few terms to know when talking about various cooking oils:

-- Smoke Point: this is, as the name suggests, the point (heat) at which the oil begins to smoke. This can change the chemical composition of the oil, sometimes to harmful effect, and almost always changes the taste. A low smoke point is bad for high-heat situations, like frying, and an oil with a very low smoke point shouldn't be cooked with at all, or only very slightly.

-- Monounsaturated fat: helps to lower bad cholesterol (LDL), meaning it is actually good for you. It is very heart-healthy.

-- Polyunsaturated fat: this kind of fat is relatively healthy, or at worst, health-neutral.

-- Saturated fat: primarily found in animal products and the tropical oils (palm and coconut, etc.). It is very bad for the body, especially the cardiovascular system (heart). It is solid at room temperature, so most oils that are very thick or solid at room temperature are probably high in saturated fat.

-- Omega-3 fatty acids: very important for cardiovascular (heart) health. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. Although primarily found in freshwater fish, certain vegetable oils contain some as well.

Here are quick summaries or profiles of each of the major cooking oils, divided by their relative smoke points.

Low Smoke Point Oils

-- Coconut Oil: Very high (up to 92%!) in saturated fat, so it is a poor choice for heart (and probably waistline) health.

-- Flaxseed Oil: This oil is high in many nutrients, however it has a very low smoke point (only 225 degrees Fahrenheit), and so should not be cooked with, only used 'raw', such as in salad dressings.

-- Sesame Oil: It has a strong, slightly smoky flavour, and a relatively low smoke-point. It lends its distinctive flavour to many oriental dishes.

-- Walnut Oil: This oil has an extremely low smoke point, and should only be used 'raw'. It does contain some Omega-3 fatty acids, and a strong nutty flavour that is lovely on salads.

Medium Smoke Point Oils

Almond and Avocado Oils: Both have a slightly sweet, somewhat nutty flavour, and a medium high smoke point, suitable for cooking. Neither particularly healthy nor unhealthy.

Olive Oil: Really, this should be several entries instead of one, as each variety - normal olive oil, refined, virgin, and extra virgin - has different qualities, but they do share many common aspects. All are high in monounsaturated fat, and thus very heart-healthy; they are also high in antioxidants. Although it has a relatively high smoke point (higher the more refined it is), its delightful, delicate taste breaks down at low heats (especially extra virgin), and is therefore best kept for uncooked uses.

Peanut Oil: This oil, of course, has a strong nutty flavour. It is very pleasant on salads, especially when paired with a strong vinegar, such as balsamic. Its smoke point can vary from medium to very high, and is suitable for most cooking uses.

Sunflower Oil: High in polyunsaturated fats, and has very little taste.

High Smoke Point Oils

-- Canola Oil (also called rapeseed oil): This oil has very high levels of monounsaturated and to a lesser extent polyunsaturated fats, some omega-3 fatty acids, and one of the lowest levels of saturated fat. It is almost completely neutral in terms of taste, making it, among other things, a great choice for baking. It has a reasonably high smoke point, meaning it is a good choice for frying. All in all, one of the healthier oils, and probably the most versatile of all.

-- Corn Oil: High in polyunsaturated fat. It is neutral both in terms of taste and health. It does have a high smoke point, making it decent for frying.

-- Grapeseed Oil: This amazing and hugely under-valued oil has one of the highest available smoke points, up to 500 degrees, and so it is suitable for even the heaviest frying. It has a delicate but noticeable nutty flavour, which may take a little getting used to for those who are only familiar with "vegetable oil" blends with almost no taste. It is high in polyunsaturated fats and in omega-3 fatty acids. It is perfect for almost every application, except perhaps baking (which often requires a 'tasteless' oil).

-- Palm Oil: Very high in saturated fat, with few health benefits to offset them. High smoke point.

-- Safflower Oil: Neutral in both taste and health qualities. It has a very high smoke point, and suitable for even deep-frying. Interestingly, it doesn't solidify even in the refrigerator.

-- Soy Oil: High in Omega-3 fatty acids, and a high smoke point.

Choosing the right cooking oils can make a big difference in your finished food Credits:  Russell James Smith

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