All Dressed Up
With all the recent attention given to good fats these days, "oil" is no longer a bad word. But with an ever-increasing range of types—and prices!—on the shelf at the supermarket, it's easy to be confused about which oils are best to use. If you dress your salads with extra virgin olive oil, a staple of the acclaimed Mediterranean diet, you're off to a good start. But don't stop there. "Including a variety of the right oils in your diet is the best way to load up on healthful nutrients and antioxidants," says Jennifer Adler, a nutrition faculty member at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.
Recent research has found that many of the oils you use in the kitchen have beneficial properties that support heart health, proper brain functioning, and the optimal absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as D and K. Some oils are packed with antioxidants that have been shown to help stamp out cell-damaging free radicals, while others can help reduce inflammation in the body.
Keep in mind that some oils are well-suited to cooking, while others may lose their health benefits at higher temperatures. On a molecular level, extra virgin olive oil, hemp oil, toasted sesame oil, and other heat-sensitive oils break down when they reach their smoke point—the temperature at which oil starts to smoke—creating potentially dangerous molecules that may increase free-radical activity in the body. These more volatile oils are better used for preparations that don't involve a lot of heat and where their unique flavors can shine—drizzled over soups and salads, stirred into hummus or white bean dip, or as a flavorful finishing touch for stir-fried veggies.
Below we have a guide to some of the most healthful and flavorful oils for cooking and eating. Each of these oils is high in monounsaturated or omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, also known as "good fats" because they can lower your bad LDL cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation, which reduces the risk for heart disease and stroke. (Nutrition experts usually recommend avoiding highly processed vegetable oils such as corn and soybean oils, which are high in omega-6 fats, thought to promote inflammation in the body.) When shopping for oils, pay attention to the "best before" date on the bottle and buy only what you'll use in a reasonable amount of time. Store cooking oils in a cool, dark place away from the oven to prolong shelf life, and remember that all oils should be tightly sealed to prevent air from seeping in.
This neutral-tasting, all-purpose oil, which is pressed from the seeds of wine grapes, is a good source of vitamin E and oleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid that researchers have found may reduce the risk of stroke.
How to Use It: Grapeseed oil's high smoke point makes it a versatile choice for sautéing, stir-frying, and roasting, particularly for dishes with strongly flavored ingredients. Use it in Asian-inspired stir-fries, or lightly toss it with kale leaves or sweet potato wedges before baking them until crisp. Its neutral flavor also makes it a fine choice to include in marinades, dips, or salad dressings.
Pressed from the seeds of the rapeseed plant, canola oil contains high levels of the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid. Compared to other vegetable oils, canola oil contains fewer omega-6 fats, which are thought to cause inflammation. Canola oil often comes from genetically modified (GMO) seeds, so choose organic if GMO foods are a concern.
How to Use It: With a neutral flavor and medium-high smoke point, canola oil is a nice option for baked goods like muffins or cakes. Like grapeseed oil, it's also a fine choice for all-purpose cooking, from stir-frying to roasting.
Rice Bran Oil
Popular in Japanese kitchens, this delicate-tasting oil is extracted from the nutritious hull of the rice, which contains an antioxidant compound associated with improved cholesterol levels. Its long shelf life makes it less prone to rancidity than many other oils.
How to Use It: With a smoke point of nearly 500 degrees, rice bran oil is a great choice for high-heat cooking such as stir-frying, broiling, roasting, and grilling. Its light taste won't overwhelm the flavors of other ingredients.
Extracted from the flesh of ripe avocados, this versatile oil has a light, buttery taste and a hue that varies with the ripeness of the fruit. It is especially rich in monounsaturated fat and lutein, an antioxidant shown to bolster eye health.
How to Use It: With the highest smoke point of any plant oil, avocado oil can be used for sautéing, grilling, or stir-frying.
Nutritious sesame oil consists of nearly equal parts mono- and polyunsaturated fats and also contains a substance called sesamin, which researchers believe may have strong cancer-fighting properties.
Pressed from raw sesame seeds, raw sesame oil has a milder flavor and lighter color than toasted sesame oil, which is a dark, golden brown color and has an intensely nutty flavor.
How to Use It: Raw sesame oil is a great choice for broiling, sautéing, and stir-frying. Toasted sesame oil is less heat-tolerant and more flavorful, so reserve it for use in dressings, dips, and Asian-inspired sauces; or drizzle it over steamed veggies, brown rice, or noodles.
While high in saturated fat, coconut oil is a good source of antioxidants and lauric acid, a heart-healthy fatty acid with antibacterial properties.
How to Use It: Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, making it a good substitute for butter in recipes that use a solid fat, such as pie crusts or scones. When substituting coconut oil for butter in baking, use 25 percent less: For 1 cup butter, use cup oil. Or, melt it over medium heat for sautéing vegetables.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
This gold standard of culinary oils offers a payload of beneficial antioxidants and monounsaturated fat. It's also one of the few dietary oils to contain vitamin K, which may reduce the risk of diabetes. Look for the words "extra virgin" on the label; refined olive oils labeled "pure" or "light" contain fewer antioxidants.
How to Use It: Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil ranges in flavor from rich and fruity to sharp and peppery. It is relatively stable at medium heat, but some research suggests that its health benefits decrease and its molecular structure can be compromised at temperatures above 375°, so it makes sense to reserve it for where its flavor can really shine—drizzled on soups, tossed with simple salads like arugula with sea salt, or used in a moist olive oil cake.
This earthy-tasting oil is high in essential omega fats, with a healthy ratio—roughly 4 to 1—of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids.
How to Use It: Hemp oil is not heat stable, so use it in vinaigrettes, uncooked sauces, and dips. Its earthy, slightly nutty flavor complements most vegetable, grain, and bean salads.
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Matthew Kadey, a Canadian-based registered dietitian and nutrition writer, is the author of the cookbook Muffin Tin Chef.