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Here's How to Figure Out What Oil to Cook With

Like many foods, certain oils seem to go in and out of fashion. One day olive oil is amazing for you, the next coconut oil is all the rage. However, even though different oils have varying benefits, use them the wrong way and you’re actually doing more harm than good. Today’s post is all about when you should use different oils and why.

First Thing’s First: An Oil’s “Smoke Point” Is Super Important

An oil’s “smoke point” refers to the temperature at which it will start to burn. Going past this temperature doesn’t just mean your food will get that nasty burnt flavour; it also means that you’ll destroy some of its beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals. Also, overheating certain oils can stimulate the release of harmful substances including aldehydes free radicals, which we obviously want to avoid as much as possible!

And Make Sure You Don’t Pick Refined Oils…

Companies refine oils to remove impurities and make them more stable for high-temperature cooking, but much of the nutrients and flavours are removed in the process. In addition, refining vegetable-based oils like canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil involves using a chemical called hexane, which is used as a cleaning solvent, industrial “de-greaser,” and is a main component of gasoline. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to put that into my body. In addition, the process of refining vegetable oils can damage their naturally-occurring fats, making them unstable and prone to rancidity. There’s a reason why companies need to deodorize refined vegetable oils; if they didn’t, they would smell pretty bad given that they’ve already become rancid from all the heat exposure during the refinement process.

General Rules of Thumb

  • Unstable fats break down easily. If you expose them to heat or light, they’ll go rancid quite quickly and release harmful byproducts that you don’t want to ingest. The most unstable fats of all are polyunsaturated fats like flaxseed oil or hemp seed oil. High-quality polyunsaturated oils like this usually come in a dark bottle to protect them from light and should be stored in the fridge as well.

  • Saturated fats are very stable, meaning they have a higher smoke point and are less prone to rancidity. Butter and coconut oil are great examples of stable saturated fats, which is why they can be kept on the counter without going bad.

  • Monounsaturated fats like olive oil fall somewhere in the middle, meaning they can be exposed to heat but only at low-medium temperatures.

That’s All Good and Dandy, But Which Oil Should I Cook With?

To answer this question, you have to ask yourself a couple questions:

  • How are you looking to prepare the food? Are you looking to sear? Sauté? Fry? Dress a salad? Do a quick stir fry? If you’re looking to sear at a very high temperature, you’d have to pick a stable oil with a high smoke point. If you’re just wanting to dress a salad, you could opt for a flavourful polyunsaturated fat instead.

  • What flavour do I want in my food? This all comes down to personal preference, but it’s important to keep in mind! For example, I personally love the taste of coconut oil so I don’t mind using it if I want to grill up some vegetables over high heat. Other oils like sesame oil impart very strong flavours, so keep this in mind when choosing what oil to cook with!

The following fats would be great for searing or sautéing over hight heat:

  • Avocado oil: 520ºF

  • Almond oil: 430ºF

  • Butter: 350ºF

  • Coconut oil: 350ºF

  • Unrefined sesame oil: 350ºF

The following oils would be best suited for salad dressings or smoothies given that they need to be kept away from heat:

  • Unrefined flaxseed oil: 225ºF

  • Unrefined safflower oil: 225ºF

  • Unrefined sunflower oil: 225ºF

With a smoke point of 320ºF, extra virgin olive oil would be great for lightly sautéing or stir-frying vegetables over low-medium heat.

The Bottom Line

While refined oils might seem tempting to cook with given their (unnaturally) high smoke points, there are plenty of natural options you can pick for high-temperature. Alternatively, unrefined oils like flaxseed oil offer great benefits so long as you’re using them properly.


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