What oil should I cook with? | 3 things to know about cooking oils


What kind of oil should I use?


As a cooking teacher, I get this question a lot. 

It's hard to give a really simple answer because theres a lot to know about fats and oils. 

But, in this short article, I want to give you a handy guide that condenses all the info in one place. 

It will help you figure out what oil to use. 

So, let's dive into the pool of fats and oils. 


Actually, that would be really disgusting.... 😂

There's not a huge difference between fat and oil.  Fat just refers to solid fats at room temp like butter or lard. Oils refer to fats that are liquid


There are a few things to consider when choosing what oil or fat to use. 

Here are the top factors: 

1. Health benefits
2. What temperature you're cooking at
3. Flavor


Isn't all fat unhealthy?

All fat is not bad.

We do need fat for many functions in our body like our brain, hormones and skin. The thing is that some fats are better for us than others.

But, this is a loaded statement. The scientific data is always changing. 

Ask the Keto and Atkin dieters and they'll tell you that animal fat like eating steak is essential to weight loss. I beg to differ...(but that's for another post)

The general rule of thumb for nutrition is that less processed is better. That goes for fats too.

The best fats for our health are the ones that are the least processed. 

These include avocado oil, unrefined extra virgin olive oil, and unrefined extra virgin coconut oil. Even some high quality butters that are pasture-raised can be healthier than processed fats. 

All in small amounts of course.

But, just buying high quality fat, like unrefined extra virgin olive oil isn't the end. 

You need to know when to heat it or not to heat It to get its full benefits. 


Let me explain about temperature when it comes to fat. 

What does temperature have to do with it?

Temperature has a LOT to do it. Fat is a delicate thing in most cases. 

Certain fats heated to high temperatures degrade the good properties. This can make them unhealthy, and make your food taste bad. You definitely don't want to overheat fats. 

The best way to think about this is to look at the smoke chart below. 

The "smoke point" of an oil is just when the oil in your pan starts smoking. This not a good thing because you start burning the oil, and create unsavory flavors. 

Smoke point of Fat/oil

Fat or oil // Smoke Point 

  • Avocado Oil // 570 F
  • Ghee // 485 F (252 C)
  • Olive oil (extra light) // 468 F
  • Soybean oil (refined) // 460 F
  • Peanut oil // 450 F
  • Coconut Oil (refined) // 450 F
  • Corn oil // 440 F
  • Grapeseed oil // 420 F
  • Canola oil (refined) // 400 F
  • Vegetable oil // 400 F
  • Olive oil (virgin) // 391 F
  • Sesame oil (unrefined) // 350 F (177 C)
  • Coconut Oil (extra virgin) // 350 F (177 C)
  • Olive oil (extra virgin) // 375 F (191 C)
  • Lard (Pork fat) // 370 F (188 C)
  • Butter // 200 to 250 F (120 to 150 C)
  • Flaxseed oil // 225 F

Take a look at the fats with the highest smoke points, like avocado oil, ghee, peanut oil. 

Fats with high smoke points can take high heat and are often using for frying or sautéing food at high temperatures. 

They don't start to burn and change flavor when heated at a high temp. 


At the bottom of the scale, you'll find the fats that can't take high temps like extra virgin olive oil and butter. They have a lower smoke point. These will start to burn and smoke when heated too much. 

They are used more for flavoring rather than frying. 

Fats with low smoke points are used for salads and finishing dishes.

That's why chefs use high quality extra virgin olive oil to drizzle on dishes just before serving. They add flavor to dishes in their raw state. Butter is often used to finish a sauce or a steak for more flavor, too. 

The chef secret revealed: chefs use a combination of butter and vegetable to Pan-fry foods, especially like a steak. That way the butter flavors the steak, but the oil keeps the butter from burning. Try it next time you cook a steak or chicken breast. 


Does oil have flavor?

I touched on this a bit, but YES! 

Fat gives incredible flavor as well as texture. It's important to know what kind of fat to use for what you're cooking. 

That's where one of my favorite infographics from the book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat comes in handy.(see below) 

Every region in the world uses different fats to cook their food. It is less about a choice, and more about the fat that is available and abundant in that region. 

For example, Spain and Italy grow tons of olive trees so the main oil used there will be olive oil in its many forms. On the other hand, in the Caribbean you'll find a lot of coconut oil because the abundance of coconut trees. 


So, the point is that if you want to cook a particular dish, you will have to use the fat from that region. If you make a Japanese dish with butter, it will be creative, but not an authentic Japanese dish. You will have to use a neutral oil or sesame oil to get the Japanese flavor you're after for your ramen. 
Like Picasso said, 
Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.
So, this is just a guide. I love to create and sometimes I break the big fat rules. But, knowing what makes each dish authentic gives me a foundation to work from. 
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Extra Fat Tips

For baking


For almost all the baking I do, I use a neutral vegetable oil (combination of corn, soybean, grapeseed, and canola oil) or butter. I don't want to impart extra flavor into muffins and cakes. But, occasionally I will make a cake from Portugal that uses olive oil and it is deliberately used to flavor the cake (its amazing!) Olive Oil Orange Cake

In some other cultures, coconut oil is used a lot in baking, but I find that it usually imparts a coconut-y flavor that I'm not so keen about. 

Storing fats


The more unprocessed the fat is, the more delicate it is. That means oils like extra virgin olive oil should be stored in dark colored bottles away from the light and heat. If its not stored in a cool place the oil will go rancid faster. 

Keep this tip in mind for storing your high quality unrefined oils. 

Summary

I hope this helped you navigate the world of fats better. It's really fun when you understand which fats to use when. You can start upping your cooking skills a little more each day. 

As a chef, my go-to for almost everything is olive oil. I use a light one for roasting, sautéing and high heat operations. 

Then, I keep a good, unrefined extra virgin olive oil for salads and finishing dishes. (My favorite is Braag)

But, I love olive oil because I cook a lot of Mediterranean and Italian dishes. This is my preference. 

Find the fat that you like best and get to know it better. Know the temperature it can withstand and the flavor it imparts in your food. It will help you create more dishes with ease and confidence. 

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