Walking into the supermarket nowadays we are faced with such a huge choice of cooking oils - almost a whole aisle just full of the stuff ranging vastly in price. But which ones should we use and does it even matter? The answer to the second question is yes, it really does matter. In terms of taste and performance, not all oils are created equal - some perform well at high temperatures and are therefore great for frying, others are better to use at lower temperatures in order to retain their flavour. But how do we differentiate between them? I'm going to run through 4 of the most common cooking oils to try and give you a bit more of an idea about what they are and a better understanding of when and how they should be used.
1) Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
What is it? Probably the most well-known type of oil - it is made by pressing olives and extracting the oil. It is extremely high quality as no heat or chemicals are used during the extraction process.
Smoke point? Good quality EVOO has a moderate-high smoke point (about 200°C) which means it is safe to use for frying and cooking. It is a common mistake that people think EVOO shouldn't be heated - it is only low quality olive oil which has a low smoke point.
Taste? Good EVOO should have a fruity and slightly bitter taste. You can often buy EVOO infused with other flavours such as garlic, chilli or lemon - they are so delicious!
Uses? It is perfect for drizzling over salads or in homemade dips such as hummus or mayonnaise.
Health? There are so many health benefits of EVOO so I will only run through a few of them here (and maybe I'll do another blog post dedicated to this topic another time if anyone is interested!). EVOO is rich in healthy monounsaturated fats and contains a large amount of antioxidants. It also helps protect against heart disease and has anti-inflammatory properties (helps to treat rheumatoid arthritis).
What is it? Butter is a dairy product made from churning milk/cream. Ghee is 'clarified' butter - when butter is heated further and melted it separates into 3 layers: whey protein, liquid fat and casein. To make ghee, the fat layer on the top is taken off - this is the clarified butter).
Smoke point? Both butter and ghee have a high smoke point (about 250°C) meaning they are both excellent choices for cooking or frying because the fatty acid structure remains stable at a high temperature.
Taste? Butter has a creamy and milky taste whereas ghee has a nutty, rich and deeper flavour.
Uses? We all know the most common use of butter (melted on toast... yummmmm) but both butter and ghee are also great in baked goods as well as all other types of cooking. Butter is also great to serve with freshly steamed vegetables because the healthy saturated fat allows your body to absorb the fat-soluble nutrients from the vegetables more easily.
Health? Ghee, unlike butter, is suitable for those who are lactose-intolerant. 'But they are both unhealthy because of the fat content, right?' Wrong! It is been proven that saturated fat does not cause heart disease or any other heart problems. In fact, saturated fat is crucial for absorbing vitamins, calcium uptake, immune function, and cell membrane structure. Ghee is thought to be even more healthy than butter - it is high in fat-soluble Vitamins A, E and K and has also been linked to reduced inflammation, especially in the digestive system.
3) Unrefined cold-pressed coconut oil
What is it? Oil which is extracted from the white flesh of a coconut without any heat in order to preserve the nutrients (heat destroys some of the nutrients).
Smoke point? A high quality unrefined coconut oil has a moderate-high smoke point (about 200°C) meaning it can be cooked to high temperatures without becoming unstable.
Taste? Surprisingly enough, it has a mild, sweet coconut flavour.
Uses? Perfect for baking due to its subtle sweet flavour but can also be used in all other types of cooking including frying or roasting. It is also great for adding into drinks such as a smoothie or a coffee for a boost of healthy fats. Its uses which are unrelated to cooking include lip balm, hair treatment, body moisturiser and makeup remover.
Health? Coconut oil is high in healthy medium-chain fatty-acids (MCFA's) which are processed by the liver and therefore converted to energy rather than being stored as fat. They are also smaller in size than other fatty-acids meaning that they permeate cell membranes more easily and are more easily digested by the body. Coconut oil contains lauric acid which is converted into 'monolaurin' in the body and has anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. There are heaps more health benefits of coconut oil but I'll stop here for now.
4) Vegetable/seed oils:
What is it?Oils which are extracted from seeds or vegetables - the most common include rapeseed (canola oil), soybean, corn and sunflower. The oils are extracted in very unnatural ways - the process involves heating, pressing and often other chemical processes.
Smoke point? Vegetable oils have a low smoke point (about 150°C) which means they are not suitable to cook with. Heating them to high temperatures changes their molecular structure and produces harmful chemicals which have been linked to cancer and other diseases.
Taste? Unsurprisingly, they don't really have much flavour - probably best described as 'neutral'.
Uses? Should be avoided if possible.
Health? These oils are high in Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Polyunsaturated fats are highly heat unstable - they oxidise easily and these oxidised fats cause inflammation and mutation in cells. They are also very high in Omega-6 fatty acids. Whilst we constantly hear about the health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids (which have been shown to reduce inflammation and protect against cancer), it is actually the ratio between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids which is fundamental to our health. The ratio should should be 1:1, however the ratio nowadays for Western diets is approximately 15:1. These unbalanced levels of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to many types of cancers and a host of other problems.
There are other oils such as avocado oil and nut oils (e.g. macadamia/walnut oil) which are less common but still widely used. However, I won't go into these ones here for the sake of not wanting to ramble on.
The main message to take away from all of this is to avoid vegetable oils - most of the other oils are generally safe for cooking with so there really is no need to use vegetable oils at all! Replace them with a good quality EVOO or even just simple butter - not only will it be much healthier but it will also be SO much yummier!
If you have any questions or want any nutritional advice please feel free to contact me using the contact me page.