A Guide To Cooking Oils

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With more of us cooking at home and experimenting in the kitchen, we are now more aware of the types of ingredients used in the cooking process. While both novice and advanced chefs are always asking questions, there is one question that never fades: “What type of cooking oil is best for…?” This question pops up time and time again for good reason. There is a lot to know about oils! So, let’s break it down into simpler terms to help get your dinner on the plate in this guide to cooking oils.

A Guide To Cooking Oils

What are cooking oils?

First things first, the USDA defines oils as fats that are liquid at room temperature. Oils are derived from a variety of plant-based sources such as nuts, seeds, and vegetables, as well as fish. Oils are technically not a main food group but they do contribute to the important daily macronutrient – fat. Fat is necessary for a well-balanced meal plan to support many normal bodily functions and cellular processes. But, all oils are not made the same, which is why we should pay close attention to how oils not only affect our health but affect the overall dish.

Types of cooking oils

There is a laundry list of cooking oils out there making it hard to determine what to use and when. To put it simply, the nutrient composition and processing of each oil contribute to its smoke point (see below), its cost, and its best uses. Most oils are high in monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats, while low in saturated fats (the “bad” fat). The exception is with tropical plant oils such as coconut and palm kernel oils.

Let’s do a quick breakdown of the types of fat:

  • Monounsaturated: These fats have the most evidence to back up their positive health benefits. Generally, we want to get most of our fats from this category. You’ll find them mostly in avocados, olives, and some nuts and seeds.
  • Polyunsaturated: This group contains the essential fats that our body can’t make itself, thus we must get from our diet. The essential fatty acids are omega-6 and omega-3. You can easily consume omega-6 fatty acids in the American diet through oils such as mixed vegetable, corn, and sunflower in food processing and the foodservice industry. Most of us don’t get enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in flaxseed, fish, and walnut oils. The goal is to keep these two fatty acids in balance. Too much of the omega-6s can actually cause inflammation in the body (that’s not what we want).
  • Saturated: Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and most often come from animal-based sources such as dairy, meat, and poultry. Americans tend to get too much of this fat which is what can eventually lead to poor health outcomes. Try to cut back on saturated fats when choosing an oil to help keep things in balance over the course of a day.

Let’s look at a few oils commonly seen on the shelves:

  • Olive oils: This oil is an all-purpose oil. You can use it to bake, sauté, roast, or drizzle. It’s loaded with monounsaturated fats and low in omega-6 fatty acids. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is highly promoted in research as an anti-inflammatory.

Dietitian Tip: I always have EVOO on hand and use it almost daily. You can’t go wrong with this one when you buy one of high quality. Olive oils are easy to infuse with flavors. Try a local oil and vinegar shop to experiment with oils flavored with garlic or different herbs and fruits.

  • Avocado oil: It has a neutral flavor and very high smoke point making it extremely versatile and great for grilling or roasting. Also, very high in monounsaturated fat.
  • Peanut oil: This one is good for deep frying and pan-frying with some added flavor. It has a good balance of both mono and polyunsaturated fat.
  • Coconut oil: Technically, it’s a saturated fat but is more nutrient-dense than butter. It has a pretty distinct flavor, too. Virgin coconut oil has a lower smoke point (about 350 degrees F), whereas filtered coconut oil can be used at higher temps (about 400 degrees F).
  • Sesame oil: It’s 50/50 on mono and polyunsaturated fats, but the poly is mostly omega-6. It’s very flavorful and you only need a tiny bit at a time.

A Guide to Cooking Oils

How to Use Cooking Oils

Dietitian Tip: Sesame oil is great for making Thai sauce, sautéing veggies for an Asian dish, or making a salad dressing with an Asian flair.

  • Corn, sunflower & safflower oils: These are generally highly processed and also highest in omega-6 fatty acids. They’re neutral in flavor and low in cost, thus store-bought foods and restaurants typically use these.
  • Canola oil: Similar to above but has more omega-3 fatty acids. It has a decently high smoke point and is very versatile, so you’ll find this oil in a lot of food products, too.

Dietitian Tip: If you frequently eat out or buy convenience foods, consider limiting your cooking with this oil at home and get your omega-3 fatty acids from another nutritious oil.

  • Flaxseed & hemp oil: Talk about rich in omega-3’s! These are packed with good fats but also very flavorful and fragile. Store them in the fridge and be sure to purchase dark bottles to protect them from light.

How to buy and use oils

Oils have a variety of uses from stirring into salad dressings, baking in muffins, and roasting veggies in the oven. Be sure to check the smoke point and flavor profile when choosing your oils.

An oil used at a temperature beyond its smoke point will not only wreak havoc on your kitchen equipment but will completely ruin a dish. Always try to purchase oils in dark, glass bottles. These bottles help preserve the oil as long as possible by protecting it from light and unwanted chemicals in plastic.

You’ll find some stores have the option between filtered and unfiltered oils. Filtered oils are most common and can be used for cooking. These also have a tad less flavor than their unfiltered counterparts. Unfiltered oils will look a little cloudy when poured and are best not applied to heat.

Let’s get cooking! Keep reading for actionable steps on how to choose the best oil for you based on the information you just learned. Overall, think about variety and moderation. No food is “bad” unless eaten in an unhealthy excess. So, if you like the flavor, aroma, cost, or convenience of an oil, don’t over think it!

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Actionable Steps


What are your health goals?

Are you concerned about overall fat intake? Do you need more omega-3 fatty acids in your diet? Do you eat mostly plant-based or do you already get some saturated fats from animal products or tropical plants? These are all questions to ask yourself when choosing an oil. Determine the type of fat needed to meet your health goals – saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids, etc.


What temperature are you using to cook the food?

Based on the cooking temperature, look at the smoke point of your oils. Grilling or roasting at high temperatures requires an oil with a high smoke point such as avocado or filtered olive oil. Try an almond or sesame oil for medium cooking temperatures. Unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil are okay with very low temperatures but best when not cooked at all.


Will the oil contribute flavor to the dish?

Depending on the dish, you may want an oil that adds a touch of flavor. Sesame oil is great for Asian cuisine. Coconut oil is perfect for Indian dishes. Flavored olive oils are great for drizzling on salads or pasta. Try avocado or canola oil if you’re looking for a neutral flavor. Neutral flavors are often best in baked goods, too.


How quickly will you use the oil?

If you’re using the same one or two oils and you typically cook with them every day, consider purchasing the larger bottles to lower the cost. If the oil is less frequently used or used in less quantity, such as sesame or walnut oil, consider purchasing the smaller bottles. Once the bottles are opened, the oil is exposed to oxygen. Over time, the more often the oil is exposed and the longer it sits unused, the more likely it will go rancid.

Dietitian Tip: For example, I use olive and avocado oil almost daily, so I buy the big bottles and they’re gone within a month or two. I only use sesame oil a couple of times per month and no more than one teaspoon at a time, so a tiny bottle does the trick.


Store it right

Keep your oils away from cooking areas (i.e., on top of the microwave or next to the stove). The heat will radiate from nearby appliances and cause the oils to go rancid quicker. Store any cooking oils in the pantry or separate counter or shelving unit to keep it safe from the heat.


Read more on this topic

Looking for additional information? Try reading: Which cooking oil is right for you? by Desiree Nielson, RD, How to Choose Healthy Cooking Oils by the Academy of Culinary Nutrition, Which Cooking Oils Should You Use? by McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN., and Guide to Oils by Cook Smart.

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About the Author

shannon costello

Shannon Costello

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN)

Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Culinary Coach, and Personal Trainer. After dedicating over 8 years to the corporate wellness world, I began my own nutrition practice. Chef Shannon Nutrition focuses on plant-based nutrition and culinary coaching. My passion for culinary nutrition grew when I worked as a cooking instructor for a culinary entertainment company. After several years as an instructor and event coordinator, I moved into the role of Director of Culinary Entertainment where I developed all the recipes, menus, and instructor trainings. My dietetic’s expertise helped the company expand into allergy-friendly and health conscious menus to suit all clients.
Full Bio | LinkedIn | 1:1 Coaching

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