Ideally, you want to cook with oils that are healthy, versatile, able to withstand heat without creating harmful free radicals and help reduce inflammation. This topic can be a touch confusing at first, especially with the huge variety of different types of cooking oils on the market. Of course you can use as many different types of oils as you’d like, but really you could cover all cooking spectrums with about three or four different kinds.
The Four Types Of Oils
Fats and oils - which are made up of fatty acids - can be classified in one of four categories: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats.
- Saturated fats are found mainly in animal fats, palm and coconut oils.
- Monounsaturated fats are found largely in nut oils, avocado oil and olive oil.
- Polyunsaturated oils include the omega 3 oils like fish and flax, and also a number of vegetable oils, including soybean oil, corn oil and safflower oil.
- Lastly, the dangerous trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils through a process called hydrogenation, which makes the oil less likely to spoil and can be identified as "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oil on a food label.
Cooking With Oils
You may have heard the term “smoke point”, which refers to the specific temperature that an oil will begin to smoke. If you heat an oil above the smoke point then free radicals are formed, as well as causing rancidity. Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that can cause oxidation or “cellular rust” in the body. DNA inside cells can be damaged by free radicals and if not repaired can cause mutations that can be related to heart disease, memory loss, accelerated aging and cancer. Bottom line is you don’t want these in your body! Free radicals are formed when oils are damaged by heat, oxygenation, pressure and certain processing methods.
The Basic Pantry Oils
While the list of cooking oils is almost endless - olive, canola, coconut, peanut, corn, soybean, sunflower, palm, cottonseed, grapeseed, flax, fish, sesame seed, vegetable, etc. - here we will focus on just a few versatile and healthy oils to use for cooking and salad dressings: the olive oils, butter and ghee, non-dairy spreads and coconut oil.
There are three basic grades of olive oil: Extra virgin, virgin, and semifine virgin (aka pure olive oil or refined oil). All types of extra-virgin and virgin oils are made from the first pressing of the olives, which removes about 90 percent of the olives' juice. Chemicals and high heat are not allowed in the production of extra-virgin or virgin oils, in other words no further processing or refining occurs after the pressing process, making them your best choice, especially if the label says “cold pressed”.
Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point is 375 degrees and is best used for baking, oven cooking, and stir frying. Extra light olive oil refers to the color of the oil - not the caloric content. If you compare an extra virgin olive oil to a light olive oil you can see the difference in color. Extra light is more refined and has lost nutritional benefits, however the smoke point for light olive oil is 468 degrees making it more suited for baking, stir frying, oven cooking and browning.
Olive oil is a wonderful all purpose oil to have on hand - from salad dressing to sautees. It’s a remarkable heart-healthy oil that is rich in monounsaturated fats. Remember to buy your oil in a tin or dark glass container and keep it in a dark cupboard. Light and air can affect the quality of the oil. It’s good to discard any olive oil that is more than 6 months old as it can degrade over time.
Butter and Ghee
Butter is made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk. It is most often made from cow’s milk, it can also be made from goat or sheep milk. The smoke point of butter is about 350 degrees F. Ghee is butter that has gone through a long simmer process where the milk solids caramelize and moisture is cooked off. For some people with dairy allergies, ghee is easier to digest and does not cause an allergic reaction. Ghee has a smoke point of 485 degrees and is a great option for high heat cooking or oiling your grill. Ghee doesn't need to be refrigerated because you are removing milk solids and sugar which is what ususally spoil at room temperature. By removing most of the milk solids and sugar, you're also removing what typically causes bacterial growth and causes contamination. Ghee can be stored for several months if it's placed in an airtight container and stored in a cool dark place. Keep ghee refrigerated if you want it to last for a year, but it will also become a solid.
Spreads like margarine can be high in trans fats, artificial flavors, and preservatives and are not the healthiest option for people looking for a non-dairy spread. Better options include Earth Balance products, or coconut butter.
Unrefined or virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees. The primary type of saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid which is a good saturated fat. Lauric acid is absorbed differetly than stearic acid and is more easily burned off as energy. This oil is best used for light sautéing, low heat baking, or sauces. It is a solid oil at room temperature so be sure to think about the recipe you are going to use. If you are making a warm sauce then this oil would work but if it’s a cold or room temperature sauce then it might not work so great.
If you’ve got olive oil, organic butter, sunflower oil and coconut oil in your pantry you’ll be well-stocked and ready to take on any salad dressing or cooking project.
References: Mayoclinic.com; whfood.org; Wikipedia.com; Cleveland Clinic Oils 101; Eatingrules.com