Five Best Oils and Fats 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
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
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
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
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.
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.