Knowing more about the ingredients you cook with takes you one step closer to being a better cook. This guide teaches you all about oils, including how to cook with oils and how to store them. Our infographics provide a visual to help you develop a better understanding, and in turn, gain the knowledge you need to make the right health choices for your eating and cooking needs.
These days, it can be overwhelming to walk down the oil aisle at the grocery store. It used to be just canola, peanut, vegetable and olive, but now there are literally dozens of options, so how do you choose?
This is a question we get asked all the time, and we don’t have one clear answer because there are actually lots of options depending on what your cooking needs are. In this guide to oils, we’ll cover:
A Lesson on Fat
It’s hard to talk about oil without talking about fat as well because oils are 100% fat. While fat used to be considered a dirty word, it really shouldn’t be because fats are an essential part of our health.
They give us energy, support cell regeneration, help us absorb essential nutrients, and so much more. Tweet this
Instead of thinking of oils as 100% fat, think about them as energy dense, typically around 120 calories per tablespoon.
There are three main types of fats:
Now we can get deep into chemistry here, but we’re gonna keep it super simple. Here’s what you need to know:
- Fats are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.
- Carbon atoms always try to make 4 bonds.
- The carbon atoms of saturated fats have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms attached to them. In other words, their carbon atoms are fully saturated with hydrogen atoms. All the carbon atoms then connect to each other via single bonds, which results in a straight molecule. Because of this structure, you can pack these molecules tightly together, one on top of another, which makes them solid at room temperature.
- In unsaturated fats, not all the carbon atoms have hydrogen atoms attached. In order for the carbon atoms to achieve their 4 bonds, some of the carbon atoms need to form double bonds with each other. This double bond creates a bend in the molecule so they don’t stack as easily. As a result, unsaturated fats are usually liquid at room temperature.
Our bodies require all three types of fat but common dietary guidelines tell us to eat foods that contain less saturated fat and more mono and polyunsaturated fats.
In the infographic below, we break down common cooking oils by their fat contents so that you can make the healthiest decision for your needs. These oils are ordered by percentage of unsaturated fats (i.e., oils with less saturated fats are listed first).
Fat Composition of Cooking Oils
A guide to help you make healthy decisions based on understanding common cooking oils and their fat contents.
How Oils Are Made
Oils are extracted from their sources basically using two types of processes: naturally (aka non-refined oils) or chemically (aka refined oils).
Naturally processes involve mechanically pressing the oil out of its source. Some oils, usually nut oils, are expeller pressed. They require a lot of force and the friction from this force can cause the oil to reach high temperatures. More heat-sensitive oils are cold pressed, meaning the temperature is highly controlled and oil temperatures are kept below 120F / 49C.
Unfortunately, not all oils can be efficiently produced using natural processes, which is why many oils are made through a chemical process called refining. It involves grinding the oil source and then using chemicals to separate the oil from the seed’s pulp. When oils are refined, they also go through a cleaning process that usually involves bleaching and deodorizing the oil.
Refining is an incredibly common oil processing technique for two main reasons:
1. It increases the shelf-life of oils
Refined oils can be stored at room temperature and can last a long time. For this reason, they’re often cheaper and used for mass market cooking.
2. It increases the versatility of oil
Refining oils usually result in a milder tasting oil and one with a higher smoke point (we’ll talk more about smoke points below), which makes them more suitable for a variety of cooking needs.
These sound like great benefits but refining oils can strip them of their natural nutrients and can introduce chemicals into the oil.
Below are cooking oils that are usually refined. It doesn’t mean that they always are or that there aren’t other refined oils out there, but this is a good short list:
- Canola (aka rape seed) oil
- Corn oil
- Cottonseed oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Safflower oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Vegetable oil
Does it mean you should toss all of these oils from your pantry? There are plenty of health advocates who say yes, but we’ll leave that personal decision to you.
These oils are definitely less expensive than their non-refined counterparts, which is why they’re the oil of choice in many kitchens. In our kitchen, we limit the use of refined oils and don’t use any of the above as our everyday oil.
Oils to Avoid
Although we recommend limiting refined oils in your pantry and everyday use, we (and the FDA!) do recommend removing hydrogenated oils from your diet.
Hydrogenation turns naturally liquid oils into artificial solid trans fats (for example, Crisco). Your body doesn’t really know how to use these fats. They aren’t metabolized very well, which means they don’t turn into energy and just kinda hang out in our bodies. Consider them the pesky guests that never leave – yikes! This results in all sorts of unhealthy consequences, like diabetes, stroke, and heart problems. All things we never want to see happen to you!
Fads come and go, but we’re pretty sure that trans fats will always be considered not good for you. The FDA considers them harmful enough that they are requiring that food companies phase them out of their products by 2018.
Types of Oils for Cooking
Now that we have a better understanding of fats (the good and the bad) and oils (the good and the bad), let’s talk about what oils you should keep in your pantry.
But before we do that, we need to introduce one more oil glossary term: smoke point.
An oil’s smoke point is the maximum temperature you should heat it to. If it’s taken past this temp, it’ll begin to burn and smoke (hence the name).
The higher an oil’s smoke point, the more versatile it is, because most of us use oils for a variety of cooking needs. Tweet this
Sometimes they’re used completely sans heat, like when we whisk up a vinaigrette or use it as a dip for warm bread. Oils also go into our baked goods, which are usually made at medium heats. They are also often the start of our sautes, stir-fries, and sears and roasts, which are all done at higher temperatures, usually 400F / 204C and above.
Because a wide variety of cooking needs call for oil, we recommend keeping two types of oils around:
1. An all-purpose oil
This oil has a relatively neutral flavor and has a high smoke point. It can be used for all cooking needs.
2. A super flavorful oil
This oil is more of a specialty oil, like an extra-virgin olive oil. These types of oils have a lower smoke point and are not the best choice for cooking, but they are delicious for dipping a piece of warm bread into (if that’s your thing – it’s definitely ours!).
The infographic below shows a list of our common cooking oils ordered by their smoke points. Remember – the higher the smoke point, the more versatile the oil.
Smoke Points of Cooking Oils
Oils are used for a variety of cooking needs, so it's important to learn and understand their various smoke points.
In our kitchen, we use avocado oil as our all purpose oil. We love it for so many reasons:
- It’s got a mild taste and high smoke point, which means it’s very versatile.
- It’s got a good saturated to unsaturated fat ratio (14% saturated fats / 86% unsaturated fats).
- It’s typically made via natural processes.
- Who doesn’t love something that comes from avocado?
Thanks to our friends at Thrive Market, you can enjoy a free bottle of avocado oil when you sign up for a membership to Thrive here! You can cancel your membership within the 30 day trial period and you won’t be charged the annual fee of $59.95. If you become a member, you can shop from their great collection of products, which includes lots of gluten-free and paleo pantry essentials, all year long.
Note: This isn’t a sponsored post, but if you do end up signing up for an annual membership at Thrive Market, we’ll make a small affiliate commission. This helps us continue our mission of delivering lots of smart cooking info to you, all for free.
Storage of Oils
Lastly, good oils are not cheap, so let’s close on how you can ensure your oils last as long as possible.
Light, heat and moisture all contribute to a shorter shelf-life of any cooking oil, so be sure to store them in a dark, cool place such as a cupboard or pantry. Tweet this
We confess to storing our everyday avocado oil out in the open on a lazy susan by our stove, because we go through each bottle so quickly – that’s what happens when you’re recipe testing for thousands of home cooks! However, if you take longer than 3 months to use a bottle of oil, tuck it away in a cupboard.
Also, good rule of thumb – store all nut oils in the fridge to prolong freshness. We definitely had a very nice walnut oil go rancid on us, which is never fun.
We hope our Guide to Oils has given you all the smarts you need to confidently choose an oil that’s best for your health and cooking needs.
Our full infographic can be viewed and shared below, and of course, can be downloaded and printed for free. Keep this guide handy to help you out in the kitchen and to reference any time you cook.
Guide to Oils
Become a better cook by understanding all about oils and how to cook with this ingredient that is used in everyday cooking.