Five Best Oils and Fats for Cooking

healthiest oils for cooking

When I went to grad school in nutrition, it was at the peek of the fat-free movement. The takeaway message at the time was that fats are either bad or worse. We’ve since learned that fats and oils play an important role in our diets. Plus, fats can be transformative in cooking. Consider, for example, how a drizzle of olive oil flavors a tangle of spaghetti or a splash of sesame oil enlivens a pan of green beans. Simple food goes from plain to plainly delicious in one fell swoop. Here you’ll find my 5 best oils and fats for cooking.

Fats are Full of Nutrients

Fat brings flavor and also delivers nutrients. The essential vitamins A, D, E, and K are carried in fat, along with heart-healthy Omega-3s, and other essential fatty acids. Not only that, but the presence of fat can aid the absorption of other nutrients. Another benefit is that fats are slow to digest, which means they can keep us feel satiated longer. This is a good thing since fats may come at a cost. Some are heartbreakers, literally, since they are high in cholesterol-raising saturated fat. And all fats are calorically dense; a mere tablespoon packs roughly 100 to 120 calories. A recipe calling for a half cup of olive oil, for example, adds a staggering 900 calories to the equation.

Fats Deliver Flavor

The positive news is, fats are so mega flavorful, a little goes go along way. I routinely cut the amount in recipes with terrific results. Baking is a little trickier, since chemistry is involved. Simply eliminating fat without making other adjustments often goes bust.

I thought I’d dig a little further into fats and share my five favorites for cooking. As an aside, be sure to store oils in a cool, dark place, and avoid buying them in large quantities. They go rancid over time. Butter, of course, belongs in the fridge, though I always have a pound in the freezer for chocolate chip cookie emergencies.

5 Best Oils and Fats for Cooking

1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

small glass container of olive oil, one of five best oils and fats for cooking

I’d be scared to know how much olive oil passes through my pantry in a year’s time. It’s my “go to” for salads, sautés, pastas, vegetables dishes, you name it. I opt for “extra-virgin”, since it means superior taste, fewer impurities, and a better nutritional profile. It’s very high in “heart healthy” monounsaturated fats along with a host of antioxidants (read more about the nutrition benefits here). When I’m feeling flush and fancy, I buy California, organic, but sometimes the price tag has me reaching for conventional.

2. Avocado Oil

avocado oil, one of 5 best fats and oils for cooking

While olive oil is what I reach for most of the time, avocado oil is another healthy option that has much to offer. It has a clean, fresh flavor and is very versatile for both cooking and baking. It also has a higher smoke point than olive oil, so is better for very high heat cooking, such as searing meat or browning chicken cutlets in a skillet.

3. Canola Oil

canola, one of the 5 best oils and fats for cooking

This neutral tasting, pale-colored oil is useful for baking and high heat cooking and tends to be less expensive than olive or avocado oil. Like olive oil, it’s high in monounsaturated fat and like avocado oil, it can withstand high temperatures. Consider reaching for “organic, expeller-pressed” canola oil if it fits your budget, since conventional canola oil undoubtedly comes from a GMO crop and is often processed using chemical solvents.

4. Toasted Sesame Oil

toasted sesame oil in a glass jar, one of 5 best fats and oils for cooking

Sesame oil tends to come in small bottles, often sold in the Asian section of supermarkets. Look for the words, “toasted”, since it packs a deeper taste and aroma. Just a few drops added to a vegetable stir-fry, dabbled over a smashed cucumber salad, or stirred into a dish of rice with scallions adds enormous flavor and richness.

5. Butter

stick of butter

Even though I begged my parents to buy tubbed margarine as a kid (to no avail), I now appreciate the beauty of butter. The downside? It’s high in saturated fat. The key is to use it caringly and sparingly. Just a few teaspoons over a steaming platter of vegetables or in a pot of soup is often all that’s needed (this soup is a good example). For baking, I often swap olive oil, nut butter, or tahini for some of the butter (such as in these cookies). My fridge is often stocked with a container of whipped butter, which is easy for kids to spread and has about half the calories per tablespoon of regular butter (thanks to all the air whipped in there). When I really want a treat, I’ll indulge in good-quality, salty Irish or cultured butter and love every smear.

What about Coconut Oil?

Over the past number of years, there’s been a lot of buzz about coconut oil in cooking and baking. While I do use it on occasion (it’s excellent for making popcorn, is a  good vegan alternative to butter, and makes a lovely banana bread), I believe it has more of a health halo than it deserves at this point. Until more research comes across the wire, I’ll rely on olive oil as my preferred  fat.

These are my 5 best oils and fats for cooking, what are yours?


05.31.2012 at8:00 AM #

Catherine McCord

Such great information. I love your site and newsletters!

05.31.2012 at8:00 AM #

Katie Morford

Likewise, Catherine. Salivating over that PBJ.

05.31.2012 at10:17 AM #


I read every word with much interest~~~ I always learn something important when I read your blog.Thank you Katie!

06.06.2012 at10:17 AM #

Mary Ellen

I’ve read that for sauteing and grilling to use regular, not extra virgin, olive oil due to the the low smoke point for the extra virgin. What’s your take, Kate?

06.06.2012 at10:17 AM #

Katie Morford

Good question Mary Ellen. Olive oil labeled “pure” or “light” are processed using chemicals and/or heat and also lack the antioxidant benefits of cold-pressed extra-virgin oil. I use extra-virgin when I both saute and grill and find it works just fine. For very high heat pan searing or frying, I’d use grape seed oil or another vegetable oil over non-virgin olive oil.

08.23.2013 at7:06 AM #


Olive oil and butter are regular features in my kitchen, and you’ve inspired me to try toasted sesame oil. Another new fat I’ve been experimenting with is coconut oil. I’m not claiming it’s healthy! It’s healthiest use is probably in making an exfoliating scrub with sea salt. It’s high in saturated fat for sure, but it’s taste is divine! I just used it in a pineapple upside down cake–yum! Have you played with coconut oil?

08.23.2013 at7:06 AM #

Katie Morford

Oh good…just a little goes a long way with sesame oil.

08.23.2013 at7:06 AM #

Katie Morford

I just realized I didn’t answer your question. I know that coconut oil is really popular these days. I have not experimented with it much, but do think it would add wonderful flavor to something like your cake. I worry that it has developed a little bit of a “healthy halo” and that folks are downing it like water. The fact remains that while some of the fats in coconut oil don’t have a negative impact on heart healthy, it is still highly saturated and like all fats, high in calorie. So, sure, include it in your repertoire, but know that it needs to be used in balance and moderation, like all fats.

01.24.2018 at1:28 PM #

JoAnn Cecere

I grew up in an Italian household and we used olive oil for everything. In the 70’s I jumped on the bandwagon and started using extra/virgin olive oil. I’ve calmed down now and keep both olive oil and evoo on hand, but nothing else. No canola, sunflower, sesame, etc. sometimes I feel guilty, but if I wait a few minutes, the feeling passes. My motto: keep it simple.

08.09.2018 at7:53 AM #


What is your take on avocado oil?

08.09.2018 at7:53 AM #

Katie Morford

Hi Colleen, Avocado oil gets a thumbs up and is one I often have in my pantry. It’s high in mono-unsaturated fat and has anti-inflammatory properties. It also has a high smoke point, so can be used for higher heat cooking. It’s a little bit on the pricier side than some of the other oils. Side note: I have an avocado oil I use on my face when it’s really dry 🙂

08.09.2018 at5:18 PM #


Now I should try grape seed oil.

05.03.2020 at9:28 PM #


I’m wondering what you bake with? I may join a baking zoom w/a friend this weekend, and her cake recipe calls for vegetable oil. I usually keep canola oil on hand and figure it can sub, though I could throw in vegetable oil to my instacart list. I already have avocado oil too. Thank you!

05.03.2020 at9:28 PM #

Katie Morford

When I’m looking for a neutral oil for baking, I usually used expeller pressed canola oil.

02.22.2023 at5:50 AM #

Heidi Hovland

You are so full of valuable information! Super helpful to have this simple and comprehensive primer at my fingertips. The toasted sesame oil is an especially welcome tip. I bought grapeseed oil to season a cast-iron skillet. I don’t know where else it belongs, cooking-wise. Any thoughts?

02.22.2023 at5:50 AM #

Katie Morford

Grapeseed oil is similar in terms of use as canola oil, I’d say. It’s got a clean, neutral flavor and higher smoke point than olive oil, so can be used for higher heat cooking. It can also be used in baking. Like all oils, it will go rancid over time, so toss it if it smells or tastes off.

02.22.2023 at6:00 AM #



Which oil do you like for popcorn – if you’re doing it in oil? I read that Martha S does half oil and half butter. I tried it but that made my kitchen kinda Smokey and the popcorn kernels were on the small side.

02.22.2023 at6:00 AM #

Katie Morford

If you want the flavor of butter without the burning/smoking, then use ghee. It’s clarified butter, so doesn’t have the milk solids. It makes delicious popcorn. That said, if popcorn is a regular snack, maybe go for something like avocado oil, which is a healthier option.

02.22.2023 at8:54 AM #


Thank you for the review. I also love algae oil, it’s very light and neutral tasting.

02.22.2023 at8:54 AM #

Katie Morford

I’ve never cooked with it. Will have to try.

02.23.2023 at9:24 AM #

Anne Crawford

Thanks for this! I

I read the Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz a few years ago. Super interesting take on the science and politics behind the low-fat craze and its aftermath. A real shift in thinking for those of us raised in the height on the no fat era.

02.23.2023 at9:24 AM #

Katie Morford

Indeed. Nutrition is certainly a young and evolving science. It’s hard to keep up sometimes!

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