The Basics of Cooking Oils

When it comes to oil, there are a lot of choices as you walk down the aisle. We all wonder which one to choose for cooking, health properties and flavor. It’s time to break down the information and find out what oil to grab for your pantry.

Olive Oil: What does extra virgin, virgin, light, and pure mean?
Olive oil is graded on taste, acidity level, and processing method. Below I’ve listed the main types of olive oil in order of decreasing quality.

Extra Virgin: Highest quality olive oil that comes from the first press and has an acidity that is less than 2% for a clean, mild flavor. Use as a finishing oil or in dips, salads or dressings. Never use Extra Virgin for cooking. If you want to cook with olive oil choose a lower grade like Virgin, Pure or Light.

Virgin: Also from the first press, but is more acidic with a stronger flavor. Acidity is generally around 3.5%. Not recommended for drizzling or dressings. Good for frying, grilling, sautéing, roasting.

Pure/Plain/Light/Extra Light: Blend of virgin and refined oils. Lacks flavor. Good for all cooking. Light means it has been refined. Not that it is lower in fat. 

What is Smoke Point?
The temperature at which oil starts to break down and burn. Heated past its smoke point the oil starts to release free radicals that cause the nutrients in the oil to degrade. These radicals release a chemical that gives burnt foods an unpleasant flavor and aroma. As a fat degrades, it’s also getting closer to its flash point, producing ignitable gases that hover over the pan.

Smoke Point of Various Oils:
Safflower Oil: 500
Extra Light/Light Olive Oil: 468
Corn Oil: 450
Peanut Oil: 450
Sunflower Oil: 440
Virgin Olive Oil: 420
Grapeseed Oil: 400
Avocado Oil: 400
Canola Oil: 400
Shortening: 360
Butter: 350
Coconut Oil: 350
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: 320

Nut Oils:
With the exception of Walnut and Pistachio oil, most of the artisan nut oils like Almond, Hazelnut, Macadamia and Sesame have a high smoke point. Although they’re best for drizzling, dressings or baking because of their exceptional flavor.  Sesame oil should be used sparingly in sauces or to finish a stir-fry.

Flavored Oils:
These oils are usually a base of Extra Virgin Olive Oil and are infused with flavors like garlic, lemon, chili, fruits or truffles. Not to be used for cooking. Only as a finishing oil on salads, fish, chicken or vegetables.

Which Oils are Healthiest:
According to the American Heart Association, we should use oils that are low in saturated fat like Canola, Vegetable, Corn, Olive, Peanut, Safflower, Sunflower or Soybean Oil. However, of all these oils, Olive Oil, especially Extra Virgin, contain the most nutrients because it has high levels of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Avocado oil is also high in these same properties and is known for its high smoke point which can tolerate cooking methods not possible with Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Despite its health claims, Coconut Oil is high in saturated fat and the AHA recommends avoiding any oil that is higher than 4 grams of saturated fat per serving. It’s a point of contention among health experts because Coconut Oil does contain high levels of medium chain triglycerides which have been known to increase good cholesterol.

Published 1/15/21

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