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The Best Cooking Oils to Use: A Guide

March 24, 2023
6 min read

Cooking oils are a staple in most people's cupboards and make their way into nearly all of our food, from healthy salads to not-so-healthy fried foods.

But did you know not all oil is created equal? When you're choosing which oils to use for different dishes, it's important to consider their health benefits, smoke points, and tastes.

In this article we'll give you a crash course on what to consider when picking an oil.

What is a healthy oil? 🫒

Quick answer

Oils contain three main types of fats: saturated, mono-unsaturated and poly-unsaturated. Oils containing the highest proportions of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are widely-accepted as the healthiest choice. Some oils can also contain high levels of vitamins, nutrients and anti-oxidants, which are also important when considering their health benefits.

As a general rule, plant-based oils are at the top of the list regarding health; they contain the lowest amount of saturated fats, being mostly made up of differing ratios of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. And, these oils contain higher amounts of vitamins and nutrients from their derived plants.

What's important to remember however is that this isn't always the case. Coconut oil being a key example, which contains around 50% saturated fat.

Animal fats on the other hand (such as butter and beef tallow) contain more than 50% of saturated fats and high levels of cholestorol. This doesn't mean that they should be completely cut out, and can have health benefits of their own, but may be better used in moderation for some people.

Now, to add another fun layer of complexity, each oils has it's own "smoke point". The differeing smoke points of an oil can also change it's health profile if heated too high. Oils that reach and exceed their smoke point lose taste, nutritional value, and can actually end up being harmful to our health.

ℹ️ Examples of healthy oils (as rated by the NZ heart foundation) include extra-virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil.

What does smoke point mean?

Quick answer

Smoke point, you've probably guessed, is the tempareture at which an oil begins to smoke. This smoking is the oxidisation of some of the contents of the oil, and means it's has started to break down, burn. This can quickly turn a healthy oil into something not so friendly to our bodies. Understanding the smoke point of different oils, and planning accordingly, can be an important tool in keeping a dish tasty and nutrient rich, and avoiding burnt, acrid flavours.

The smoke points of different oils can range from between 160° up to 270° (for reference, the average frying pan set to medium heat will get to around 180-190°). This means that picking an oil with a higher smoke point is best suites to cooking at higher heats (such as frying, roasting or baking). Conversely, oils with a lower smoke point tend to be better for low or no heat cooking (including sauteeing and adding to sauces or dressings).

Smoke point can also be affected by how the oil itself is made (or it's extraction process), meaning, for example, not all olive oils will be the same. There are several different variations of extraction, but they generally fit into two categories; refined or unrefined.

Refined oils are the most mass produced. The refining process removes a lot of the 'impurities' or sediment in the oil, which makes the oils more stable and gives them a higher smoke point, but reduces flavour, colour and nutritional content.

'Impurities', while sounding bad, simply means anything that isn't the pure oil itself. Think of it similar to the pulp in orange juice! A lot of these 'extra bits' are what gives something like extra-virgin olive oil it's distinct taste and aroma, and brings a lot of the associated health benefits. Keeping an oil as unrefined as possible may provide a much higher quality of oil, but does mean that the smoke point will be lower.

But remember, a high or low smoke point doesn't make an oil is any less healthy. Using them correctly is the key!

ℹ️ It isn't just olive oil that can be 'extra virgin'. The Good Oil's Extra Virgin Sunflower Oil is produced from NZ-grown sunflowers and cold-pressed, using no heat or chemicals, to extract the oil from the seeds. This leads to an equally flavourful and nutrient-rich product, high in Vitamin E!

Which oils to use and when

So, what oil should you actually use? Good question.

There are some general guidelines to follow when picking oils: What dish am I making? What heat am I cooking at? What's the flavour and nutrient profile of the oil? But it's important to rememebr these are only guidelines. Everyone enjoy different flavours and health goals, and may like to sub one oil out for another. Or, you might be having a cheat day (or two) and fancy some buttery goodness in your life.

Follow our simple, informative guide below!

Rapeseed Oil

  • Smoke point: 230°C
  • Flavor profile: Mild, buttery and nutty
  • Best applications: High-heat cooking such as frying, roasting, and baking
Bottle of The Good Oil's rapeseed oil
Bottle of The Good Oil's sunflower seed oil

Sunflower Oil

  • Smoke point: 232°C
  • Flavor profile: Mild and neutral
  • Best applications: High-heat cooking such as frying, roasting, and baking

Olive Oil

  • Smoke point: Extra virgin: 160°C, refined: 240°C
  • Flavor profile: Fruity, nutty and slightly bitter
  • Best applications: Dressings, marinades, and low-heat cooking such as sautéing and roasting
An image of olive oil in a jar with a cork
Avocado oil in a small jar next to sliced avocados

Avocado Oil

  • Smoke point: 271°C
  • Flavor profile: Mild and buttery
  • Best applications: High-heat cooking, such as searing and frying, and as a salad dressing

Sesame Oil

  • Smoke point: Toasted: 177°C, untoasted: 210°C
  • Flavor profile: Nutty and slightly sweet
  • Best applications: Stir-frying, marinades, and as a finishing oil
A bottle of sesame oil
A jar of CeresOrganics coconut oil

Coconut Oil

  • Smoke point: 177°C
  • Flavor profile: Mildly sweet and nutty
  • Best applications: Baking, sautéing, and as a substitute for butter or oil in recipes

Rice Bran Oil

  • Smoke point: 254°C
  • Flavor profile: Neutral with a light nutty taste
  • Best applications: High-heat cooking such as frying, sautéing, and stir-frying, as well as baking
A plastic bottle of rice bran oil
A bottle of peanut oil

Peanut Oil

  • Smoke point: Refined: 232°C, unrefined: 160°C
  • Flavor profile: Nutty and slightly sweet
  • Best applications: High-heat cooking such as frying, stir-frying, and sautéing, as well as for making sauces and dressings.

    Note: Peanut oil is a common allergen, so be aware of any dietary restrictions!

How to keep your oil fresh for longer

Fresher oil keeps more of it's original delicious flavour, nutrient profile and smoke point.

  • When purchasing oil, opt for the freshest available and check for a pressed-on date instead of relying solely on the best-before date, which may not accurately reflect the oil's age.

  • To keep oil fresh, store it in a cool and dark place with a tight stopper.

  • For better preservation of oil, choose containers such as green or dark bottles, or tins, as they provide better protection from light penetrating into the oil.

  • Oils don't improve with age; use any open oil within 12 months.

Oils might be start to seem like fine wines. Different flavours, colours and production techniques. Well, you wouldn't be far off - but don't get overwhelmed. We recommend picking two or three oils which cover different bases.

Armed with new flavours, varied smoke points, and healthier choices, you're ready to take you cooking to the next level.

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