11 May, 2017
Resolving The Cooking Oil Dilemma (Which oils should I use?)
I have had the cooking oil dilemma for a long time; this is not the first time I have been writing about it.
I thought I had found an answer 3 years ago, but since then I have been learning a lot more about this issue: what is the best oil to use for various cooking purposes?
Let us get into some detail here. Pardon me if I get too technical! I will try to keep it short and easy to read.
Categories of Fat
Oils contain fat, which is either saturated or unsaturated.
Saturated fats are abundant in ghee and oils that tend to solidify at room temperature like coconut oil. This means that their carbon-hydrogen backbone cannot take any more hydrogen atoms. Hence, they are stable at high temperatures. However, they raise cholesterol levels in the body and pose a risk for heart attack, stroke etc.
Oils from seeds like olive, canola contain unsaturated fats. Their carbon atoms have a potential to get “saturated” or bond more hydrogens. They are more unstable when heated and can form free radicals. Free radicals, we know are not good for the body, they are associated with cancers and other chronic diseases. Even a high amount of processing can lead to oxidation of these oils and thus produce free radicals.
Olive oils have monounsaturated fats, which have a lesser tendency to form free radicals. Avocado oil has 70% monounsaturated fat as well.
Sunflower and safflower oils have many unsaturated bonds, called polyunsaturated fatty acids which have a higher tendency to form free radicals when heated.
Another important factor is smoke point, the temperature at which the oil starts smoking or degrading. Higher smoke points are better for tempering and sauteing. From the following table canola and safflower oils seem to be ranking high in smoke points but then we know that safflower oil may form more free radicals due to the presence of many unsaturated bonds.
MCT: medium chain trigycerides
Inferences from the table
- Higher the smoke point, those oils are stable to medium-high heat.
- Poly-unsaturated fats such as safflower oil although has high smoke point, is not stable for high heat.
- Although vegetable oil, corn and soy oils have a high smoke point, they are mostly genetically modified, so it is best to avoid them. (see Note 1)
- All of canola oil has been genetically modified (from rapeseed), even if it says organic. Read about the history of this CON-ola oil here.
- Although peanut oil has a high smoke point, I recommend avoiding it. The use of peanut oil is controversial because peanut contains a toxin called “afla-toxin” which is potentially cancer-causing.
- Grape seed oil is ideal for medium heat. However, the source is important. Most grape seed oil in the market is made cheaply by solvent extraction methods which is not ideal. (See Note 2) If expeller pressed or cold-pressed oil is available, it is a good choice.
- Coconut oil is ideal for medium heat and saute purposes, but I do not recommend it for high heat frying. It adds a lovely flavor to dishes, and is not neutral in taste.
- I have not touched upon mustard oil which is used in some parts of India. I did not find smoke point data. I do think in small amounts, it adds good flavor.
Although I have not mentioned it in the table, an important factor is the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in an oil. In general, higher the ratio, better it is for the body. Omega-3 fats are recommended for heart health, but in moderation.
It is best to keep the ratio (omega-6/omega-3) <= 1. See Dr. Weil’s article here.
- My choice for frying is avocado oil and ghee.
- I never do any deep-frying. Even for shallow frying, I use high heat oils. This includes tempering or “tadka”.
- Since ghee has only saturated fat, I tend to use it minimally.
- Unrefined coconut oil if I want a coconut flavor in that dish.
- Refined coconut oil for neutral flavor.
- Sesame oil for south -Indian and Asian dishes which are good with sesame flavor. Toasted sesame oil is especially great for Asian noodles.
- For neutral flavor, I like avocado or grape seed oil.
- I like extra virgin olive oil for drizzling on salads, pasta
- Hemp oil for salad dressing
What about baking?
For the same reasons stated above, I think the best choices are coconut oil and avocado oil. There are many brands of coconut oil available that have negligible smell. I feel this makes it easy to use everyday.
- Oils that are stable to medium and high heat can be stored at room temperature.
- Butter is best stored in the fridge or freezer (long-term)
- Flax seed oil and hemp oil need to be stored in the fridge.
1. Experts in the field would tell you to stay away from genetically modified foods, as they are in the long term known to cause harm to the body. Most of corn, canola as well as vegetable oil (which is mostly soybean oil) in the U.S is genetically modified, unless labeled “non-GM”. The simplest reason to understand why GMO is not good is that those seeds are modified to be resistant to weed killers like Round Up, which is now classified by WHO as a probable carcinogen, meaning cancer-causing. That means they would have a higher concentration of those cancer causing chemicals. We want to stay away from those.
2. Grape seed oil is produced as byproduct in the wine-making industry. If it is refined by extraction with solvents like hexane and other chemicals, it is likely to have been heated and is not healthy. (Cold-pressed) grape seed oil is high in omega-6 fats as compared to other oils, so consuming in moderation may be beneficial. See this article from Dr. Axe for more information.
I have learned a lot while researching this topic. Hope you find it useful!
I would love feedback from you about which oils you like to use in your kitchen and why!