Fats can be transformative in cooking. Take the story of American culinary legend James Beard: vexed over a tomato sauce he just couldn’t get right, he hastily reached for a stick of butter, lobbed it into the pot, gave it a stir, and declared the recipe divine.

Luckily, you needn’t be as generous with the butter knife as Beard to see the effect of fat on food. Consider, for example, how a small knob of butter elevates a plate of steamed vegetables or a drizzle of olive oil flavors a tangle of spaghetti. Simple food goes from plain to plainly delicious in one fell swoop.

A Bundle of Nutrients

Fat brings flavor and it 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 feeling satiated longer. This is a good thing since fats also come at a price. 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, and simply eliminating fat without making other adjustments often goes bust.

And so I thought I’d share a bit about fat today, specifically, the five best fats for cooking,  their high points and uses. As an aside, be sure to store oils in a cool, dark place, and avoid buying them in large quantities since they do 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.

1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

healthiest oils for cooking

I’d be scared to know how much of this 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. When I’m feeling flush and fancy, I buy California, organic, but sometimes the price tag has me reaching for conventional.

2. Canola Oil

healthiest oils for cooking

This neutral tasting, pale-colored oil is the standard in much of my baking. Like olive oil, it’s high in monounsaturated fat. Consider opting for “organic, expeller-pressed” canola oil, since conventional undoubtedly comes from a GMO crop and can be processed using chemical solvents.

3. Butter

healthiest oils for cooking

As someone who 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 tablespoon over a big plate of vegetables or in a pot of pureed soup is often all that’s needed. For baking, I sometimes scale back the butter and up the amount of oil or another liquid, say yogurt or orange juice. My fridge is often stocked with a container of whipped butter, which is easy for the 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.

4. Toasted Sesame Oil

healthiest 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 Vietnamese-style cabbage salad, or stirred into a dish of rice with scallions adds enormous flavor and richness.

5. Grapeseed Oil

healthiest oils for cooking

Technically a fruit oil, this mild tasting option is pressed from grape seeds, often ones that are the bi-product of wine making. It’s the newest addition to my repertoire, one I learned from my brother, the chef. Its best feature is a high smoke point, which means you can bring the temperature up without setting off the smoke alarm, perfect for pan-searing a pork chop or browning a breaded cutlet of fish.

Side note: over the past several 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. I’m also fond on avocado oil, since it is high in mono-unsaturated fat, has a relatively high smoke point, and a fresh, clean flavor. 

What’s your favorite fat?