Whether you love to cook or mostly stick to a few simple dishes, you likely have some kind of cooking oil in your kitchen. But which one? And is it the best cooking oil for your health? With all the different kinds available — from avocado and olive to coconut and peanut — the options can seem endless. The reality is that not all oils are created equal, and not every oil works for every kind of cooking.
Alexis Brooks, registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente Southern California, shares helpful tips and guidance on cooking oils. By learning which oil is good for what, you’ll be ready to reach for what you need with your health in mind.
The healthiest cooking oils
Unrefined oils, like extra virgin olive oil and cold-pressed coconut oil, are higher in nutrients than refined oils like grapeseed and soybean oil. According to Brooks, some of the healthiest oils for cooking include:
- Extra virgin olive oil for low to medium heat
- Peanut oil for medium to high heat
- Sesame oil for medium to high heat
- Coconut oil for high heat
- Cold-pressed canola oil for high heat
- Unrefined avocado oil for high heat
In addition to unrefined versus refined, it’s also important to consider unsaturated versus saturated. As with all food, oils are made up of different types of fats, and some fats are healthier than others. "Oils have different compositions of saturated and unsaturated fats and that affects us differently," says Brooks.
Unsaturated fats, specifically monounsaturated fats like olive oil, are healthy for our heart and brain. They also can help reduce inflammation. Olive oil is the staple of the Mediterranean diet, which is known for health benefits like lowering the risk of heart attack, lowering cholesterol, and preventing heart disease.
Saturated fats like coconut oil can be associated with increased cholesterol levels, but they also hold some health benefits including antioxidant properties. These saturated fats can be included in your diet if it’s in moderation.
The daily recommended intake of cooking oil for an adult is about 4 to 6 teaspoons, depending on individual needs. So, if you’re looking for a healthier option to cut down on cooking oil, you may consider baking, grilling, roasting, broiling, or air-frying as low-fat cooking methods.
Why temperature matters when using cooking oils
Each oil has its own smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke. So, there’s a limit to the amount of heat you should apply. It’s possible to make a healthy oil unhealthy by heating it past its smoke point.
"Once you see or smell smoke, the oil is unstable," warns Brooks. "The flavor changes and will taste burnt. It can also become less nutritious and harmful to your health. As it’s breaking down and becoming unstable, free radicals are released, which can cause cell and tissue damage. This can lead to inflammation and a variety of diseases and conditions." So, if you prefer to cook at a high heat, it’s best to use an oil that can withstand the heat like coconut, canola, or avocado oil.
The best oils for baking and salad dressing
"Heating oils can change the flavor and the nutrients, so it’s good to know the basics when it comes to cooking, baking, and dressing with oils," explains Brooks.
For baking, the best oils are coconut oil and olive oil. Coconut oil is more stable than olive oil at higher temperatures. However, olive oil can be heated to 350 degrees F, which is a common baking temperature.
As for cold or room-temperature dressings, olive oil, avocado oil, and peanut oil are popular choices. Other oils that work well in dressings but don’t do well when heated are walnut oil and flaxseed oil. These oils shouldn’t be used for cooking or baking since they’re too delicate and unstable.
How to store your cooking oils
Most oils should be stored in a cool, dark place to keep them from going rancid. The goal is to avoid heat, oxygen, and light getting to the oils before you’re ready to use them. Some oils, like flaxseed and sesame, keep best when stored in the refrigerator. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, you can keep olive or vegetable oils unopened in the pantry for 4 months.1 But guidance varies as other food sites state oils can last for about 2 years unopened, and about a year once the bottle is opened.2
For recipe ideas and inspiration, visit our Food for health blog. You’ll find recipes like curry quinoa and grilled avocado and tandoori chicken that recommend using olive oil, as well as a Buddha bowl that recommends using sesame oil and vegetable oil.