What is the best cooking oil? How to choose from popular plant-based oils

  • 3 Minutes Read

What is the best cooking oil to meet your health and culinary goals? The choices can seem overwhelming. Here's how to pick a plant-based oil for whatever you are cooking.

What is the best cooking oil

Having so many choices complicates our decision for what is the best cooking oil

Not long ago, grocery stores offered maybe two or three types of cooking oil. Corn, soy, and "vegetable" oils were about all you could find. Vegetable oil was a grab-bag of whatever was inexpensive, such as corn or soy, on a given production day.

Today, supermarkets overwhelm us with plant-based oil choices. For example, I see plenty of almond, avocado, flax, grapeseed, sesame, and walnut oils in my local grocery store. There are just as many health claims for some of these oils. They allegedly erase wrinkles, make your hair shine, fight inflammation, and lead to weight loss. Is there a reason to choose almond over canola oil? Or avocado over extra virgin olive oil? Perhaps. Consider nutrition, cooking method, and cost.

What is the best cooking oil based on nutrition?

Plant-based oils are very similar to each other from a nutrition standpoint. All are 100 percent fat and about 120 calories per tablespoon. Most have some vitamin E and insignificant amounts of other nutrients. Refining removes many of these substances. When choosing an oil, smoke point and subtle flavors may be your most important considerations.

The main nutrition difference between oils is the balance of the types of fats they contain. Avocado and olive oils contain high levels of monounsaturated fats, which are linked to health benefits. If you want to emphasize monounsaturated fats and cook at high heat, refined avocado oil is a win-win.

Here's a breakdown of fats for popular oils

OilMonounsaturated fat, % Polyunsaturated fat, %Saturated fat, %
almond 68 10 22
avocado 70 15 15
canola 65 28 7
flaxseed 65 28 7
grapeseed 15 75 10
olive 75 10 15
sesame 42 41 17
walnut 15 75 10

Omega-3 fatty acids

Consider an oil's beneficial omega-3 content. Walnut, flax, and canola oils are good sources of omega-3s, especially for vegetarians who don't get omega-3s from fish. Unfortunately, omega-3s are fragile and broken down by heat. Cooking with walnut and flax oil may eliminate this key nutritional benefit found in these costly oils. Using walnut oil and flax oil in uncooked foods such as dressings makes the most sense.

What is the best cooking oil based on cooking method?

High-heat cooking

When choosing an oil for high heat cooking, the oil's smoke point is the most crucial factor. Smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil literally starts to smoke. At this stage, your food may end up burnt along with the oil. If you're going to use high heat to sear meat or stir fry vegetables, choose an oil with a high smoke point. Avocado oil is a good choice. The drawback: it's pricey. Be sure to buy refined avocado oil, not virgin or cold-pressed for this purpose. If you do not cook at very high heat, you can make do with soy, peanut, canola, or corn oil. For more information, please see What is Smoke Point?

Medium-heat cooking

When you cook over moderate heat to sauté onions or vegetables, for example, choose oils with lower smoke points. Olive oil is the winner here, and of course, you can use avocado or other oils with higher smoke points anytime.

Finishing a cooked dish

Add a dash of a flavorful oil to a dish after it's cooked.

Pro tip: These are flavorful oils, so you don't need to add much.

Baking

If you're baking cakes or muffins, you don't want a strong oil flavor, such as extra virgin olive oil. Pricey nut oils aren't suited for this purpose. Neutral oils like canola, soy, safflower, or sunflower are best bets for baking.

Salads

Here's where flavorful oils can shine. Whether you make a salad from tossed greens, grains, pasta, beans, or cold meats, you can perk up the flavors with a nut or cold-pressed avocado oil. If you ask me, use avocado, walnut, or olive on tossed greens; avocado, almond, or walnut on a grain salad; avocado, olive, or walnut on a bean salad; toasted sesame, grapeseed, or avocado on a cold meat salad.

What is the best cooking oil based on cost?

Cooking oils range dramatically in price. Should you splurge on a tiny bottle of olive oil, or spend a few dollars on canola oil in bulk? The answer is both!

If your budget allows, splurge on more expensive, flavorful oils such as extra virgin olive oil and nut oils for dipping or to finish a dish. You will only use them in small quantities, making the cost per serving reasonable. While buying in bulk is typically a cost-saving measure, buy pricey, flavorful oils in smaller quantities to avoid wasting oil that has gone rancid.

For baking, canola oil is a healthy and budget-friendly choice. For everyday higher-temperature cooking, peanut or canola oil make the grade and save you money when purchased in a larger container.

Try a new plant-based oil

As mentioned earlier, a wide selection of plant-based oils turns up in grocery stores these days. Their unique flavors make them ideal for boosting the taste of vegetables, sauces, grains, pasta, and beans. These oils fit nicely with plant-based diets, giving plant-centric dishes delicious flavors. If you want to include more plant-based foods in your diet, give one of these oils a try. Just remember to store them in a cool place out of direct light and heat to preserve their flavor and quality.

Reviewed and updated by Sue Heikkinen MS, RDN, CDCES on September 9, 2020.

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Sep 9, 2020
Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of Food Wisdom for Women and "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen". She writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition.

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