Each time I visit the cooking oil aisle in a grocery store, there seems to be a newbie on the scene. With the rise in use of coconut oil, I decided to investigate what cooking oils are available, how to use them and what differentiates one from another.
Extra virgin olive oil is the king in my kitchen, followed by unsalted butter and very very occasionally lard. Something tells me most American kitchens are similar in using, dare I say, EVOO (Rachel Ray’s shortened term for the olive oil we all keep on hand), for just about every savory cooking method except for deep frying, in which case canola oil or vegetable oil is used.
I asked my Facebook fans which oils they used, and here’s what they said:
When you walk into your grocery store and head to the baking isle, you will likely see any of these oils available to purchase:
- Olive Oil (ex. Pure Olive Oil, Light Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
- Canola Oil
- Vegetable Oil (aka Soybean or Corn Oil)
- Peanut Oil
- Grapeseed Oil
- Sunflower Oil
- Safflower Oil
- Sesame Oil
- Hempseed Oil
- Pumpkin Seed Oil
- Rice Bran Oil
- Flaxseed Oil
- Coconut Oil
- Avocado Oil
- Walnut Oil
- Truffle Oil
- Oil blends (ex: Canola and Olive Oil, Canola and Coconut)
Look at all of those options! How do you know which to choose and for what? Taste, smoke point, health benefits and price are just a few ways to decide which oil is right for you.
Huffington Post has a great article about “The Cooking Oils You Should Be Using, and When to Use Them” that includes smoke point and origin, so I will not repeat all of that here. Instead, here’s a look into what I found at Kroger, Target, Marsh and Fresh Market, my local grocery stops.
Most Americans who shop at large grocery stores have probably seen an aisle like this:
These oils are low in cost, high in quantity and overall look like oils you should buy. Why? Notice the repetition. There are only 10 different kinds of oils on these shelves, a few of which come from the same brand or are packaged larger or smaller. It is my belief that we are hardwired to shop this way – you notice how many options are available, but in reality there are not as many to choose from as you think. When there is a lot of one product, it tells you that it must sell. Why would the grocery store stock so many if it didn’t? That’s actually an entire discussion we should have about product placement and who really buys those shelves, but we’ll save that for another day.
Canola oil and vegetable oil are found here, and they are not the terrible oils you may have heard them to be. I use canola oil when I need a large quantity of oil for frying. It has a high smoke point and can withstand the heat. Vegetable oil is really soybean oil or corn oil, and serves a similar purpose. Both light in flavor, cheap and accessible, these are found in many kitchens across America.
What’s missing are the health benefits that you can get from other oils.
It’s harder to make that decision on what is good when you have something that looks like this:
Darker bottles, smaller quantities… what could these strange things be next to the oils? They’re more oils, silly! And they are more expensive and offer little info on who they are and why you should buy them.
What are they? Here are a few examples:
OLIVE OILS (EXTRA VIRGIN, LIGHT, PURE)
Ah, our good friend olive oil. Known for its slightly green color and mild olive taste, you will likely enough versions of olive oil to make your head spin. Which one to choose, and why?
What is it? You will find more research and information available about olive oil than any other cooking oil. According to the Mayo Clinic, the main fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fat and may help lower your risk of heart disease. For years we have been told to swap canola or vegetable oil for extra virgin olive oil due to the health benefits, but I believe some of that is because there were no other mainstream options to choose from, like coconut oil. Only health nuts knew what existed and where to find it (que the story about my mother’s co-op in the 90s, remind me to tell you about this someday).
“Extra Virgin Suicide” is an infographic from The New York Times, which discusses the mislabeling of blended oils and flat out non-olive oils as olive oil. There are several articles with titles such as “Is Your Olive Oil Really Olive Oil,” because the various types and labels wasn’t confusing enough to the average consumer. To know the difference between pure olive oil, extra virgin, virgin and light, read this great article from How Stuff Works.
How to use it: From unrefined to refined, light, pure, extra virgin – I’m starting to think that avoiding olive oil would be easier than trying to understand all of the different types and what is out there. Priced moderately to slightly expensive, olive oils are no longer the king of the cooking oils and should be used when you want that specific flavor, not just to use as an everyday cooking oil. How Stuff Works also explains how olive oils balance out the acidity in high-acid foods such as vinegar, wine and lemon juice. Used in baking, olive oils replace other cooking oils with healthy fats, though I don’t know many people who bake things because they want a healthier birthday cake. It’s lower smoke point means you should not use it for frying because it may burn and not only taste bad, but negate the health benefits.
AVOCADO OIL AND WALNUT OIL
What they are: I have no experience cooking with avocado oil or walnut oil, but both have healthy fats and interesting benefits. According to my favorite tea company Mountain Rose Herbs, avocado oil is made from pressed avocados and is highly prized by those with skin ailments such as eczema and psoriasis. Known since the Aztec times, the flesh of an avocado can contain up to 30% oil. Scientists like you can read all of the crazy facts about why avocados rock in this report by AOCS, a research company that advances the science and technology of oils and fats. Doesn’t that sound like a cool job?
Walnuts are not only pressed to make oil, they’ve been under pressure from scientists lately for their health benefits. A group of Penn State researchers have studied the effects a diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil may prepare the body to deal better with stress, according to a researchers who looked at how these foods, which contain polyunsaturated fats, influence blood pressure at rest and under stress.
How to use them: Avocado oil is mild in flavor and has been recommended to use in salad dressings or savory cooking. As someone with a nut allergy, it is unlikely that I will cook with walnut oil or consume it willingly. I am only allergic to cashews, pistachios and pine nuts, but the reactions I have to them cause me to not enjoy nuts in general. I am always on the lookout for the potential “bad nut” to be found in my food when ordering at a restaurant, but even walnuts, pecans and almonds do not sit well with me. There is some thing about the flavor that triggers me to say “no thanks.” Those who do love walnuts will enjoy walnut oil because the flavor of a crunchy walnut will permeate your dish.
GRAPESEED OIL AND CANOLA COCONUT OIL BLEND
What they are: Grapeseed oil, if you can believe it, is made from the little itty bitty seeds inside grapes, which likely were the bi-product of a winery. When I was researching it, I found two articles claiming that grapeseed oil is not as healthy as we think it is. One articleexplained that there is a harmful chemical process used to extract the oil from the pressed seeds, while another claims two issues – that we are consuming toxic amounts of polyunsaturated fats and that grapessed oil is higher in polyunsaturated fats (shortened PUFA) than any other oil, and therefore harmful to our health. Neither article was supported by enough credible sources without sifting through a ton of research. More on fats at the bottom of the article.
Who is that stranger next door? A canola and coconut blended oil, intended for “everyday use,” or so says the label. I love Spectrum, but I have to wonder if the idea of blending two oils together and branding it as everyday use was simply a marketing trick. Does this assume that I need an everyday oil and a special occasion oil? I’m confused, and you might be, too.
How to use them: I cannot find much wrong with the blended oil – I’ve fallen victim to their olive and canola blend. Milder in taste than olive oil but a higher smoke point than canola oil, it seemed like the best of both worlds. Instead, I realized I needed better education about which oils to use when instead of using an odd blend that I actually found myself not using everyday. In this case, coconut oil is blended with a familiar canola oil, possibly as an attempt to get you to consider cooking with coconut oil without taking the leap of buying a $7 jar of coconut oil and not knowing what to do with it.
Grapeseed oil should be used when you are looking for oil in salad dressing, but not for high heat cooking or frying.
SUNFLOWER OIL AND SESAME OIL
Now don’t those prices look a little better?
What they are: Sunflower oil has fallen into the same argument as grapeseed oil, where nutritionists claim the high amount of polyunsaturated fats cause health issues. The National Sunflower Association begs to differ and presents articles citing doctors who agree with them. What can be agreed on is the low cost, neutral flavor and flexibility in cooking.
You may be familiar with sesame oil if you read food blogs and have stumbled across yet another PF Changs knock-off meal that calls for sesame oil. According to WebMD, sesame oil is rich in both mono- and polyunsaturated fats (here we go with those PUFA’s again), and is low in saturated fats, something most of us can agree as a good thing.
How to use them: My favorite cooking technique resource, Fine Cooking, shares that there are two kinds of sesame oils – light and toasted (aka dark or Asian). Light is not made with toasted seeds as the latter is, has a much milder flavor and is used in cooking. The toasted version is used more for its taste and is great in salad dressings or drizzled on top of pasta or stir-frys.
With sunflower oil being such a neutral oil, it has a potential to be used in baked goods. Grease your pans with it or experiment with using it in place of eggs.
What is it? Coconut oil is taking a place in more American kitchens, slightly nudging extra virgin olive oil out of the way.
Coconut oil is not new. You may see it referred to as palm oil, aka oil derived from the coconut tree, which is a member of the palm family. According to Today’s Dietician, coconut oil has been cited in ancient Sanskrit texts from 4,000 years ago as having Ayurvedic principles (Ayurveda is a holistic approach to health care). This makes sense, because my yoga teacher is always touting the benefits of cooking, consuming and slathering coconut oil all over your body.
So what happened between 4,000 years ago and today? The plant based fat that coconut oil provides was replaced by soybean and corn oil under the premise that saturated fat causes heart disease, which led many Americans to choose a low-fat diet. This was before we really understood good fats vs bad fats.
Not anymore. Coconut oil is joining the team of oils at the grocery store, begging for your attention. There is more research and talk about coconut oil than any of the others I mentioned above, which I realized quickly when researching them. 12 hours prior to me typing these words, Huffington Post shared “What’s the Deal with Coconut Oil,” which is similar to why I am writing this education piece today.
Coconut oil has similar saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats that grapeseed oil and sunflower oil get a bad wrap for, but coconut oil has these MCT’s – medium chain triglycerides!! If you care to read, it is quite fascinating how these buggers have positive impact on our weight control and immune enhancement.
How to use it: Cooking with coconut oil may surprise you. While mild in flavor, it is not neutral. There is some flavor, a little nutty, a little creamy, that I really like. I know, nuts, I said I didn’t like them, but coconut oil is my exception. Cook with it in savory dishes in mild heat (no more than 150-160 or the MCT’s will break down) or even in baking. I cut up a banana, put it in a skillet with a little coconut oil, and let the banana caramelize. It was delicious.
Overwhelmed yet? It’s okay, take a deep breath and know that there are at least a half dozen other oils I didn’t even go through here.
Don’t forget – it is important to store your oils in a dark, dry place, or even in the refrigerator. They may turn from liquid to solid but that is OK. Oils will turn rancid after several months, so use them quickly or buy smaller quantities.
The bottom line: Not all oils are alike. Knowing how you plan to use the oil can help you determine which one to buy, along with the taste you are looking for. Consider what you cook frequently and decide if there is one oil that can accomplish most of that for you. All oils contain fats, and all fats should be consumed modestly. Do your research if you are concerned about saturated fats.
I am swapping olive oil out for coconut oil, but still plan on using cheaper, neutral canola oil for frying chicken in a dutch oven or frying onion rings. There is still more to discover, so I’ll come back with a write-up on the boutique (for lack of a better word) oils such as flaxseed, hempseed and rice bran. Yes, they do exist – Whole Foods or your local Good Earth has them.
Researching all of these oils taught me a lot, and while I know I’m still missing some info, I hope this helps you identify a new oil to try in your kitchen. Have questions? Leave me a comment and let me know what oils you are using and why!