A Guide to Healthy Cooking Oils

4 Healthy, Versatile Cooking Oils

One of the top questions I get as a wellness chef is: how do I know which oil to use?  So in today's post, I want to share the 4 cooking oils/fats that I always have in my kitchen.

But first, here are important notes about cooking oils:

  • Don't keep too many oils on hand.  To prevent oils from going rancid or spoiling, you want to use them up quickly--within a month or two is ideal.  Saturated fats like ghee or coconut oil can usually last longer.
  • Diversify your oils.  Because each oil contains a different concentration of fatty acids, it's easy to build up certain ones and be deficient in others if we use the same oil over and over again.  Every time I buy a new higher heat oil (avocado in this post), I pick a new one.  
  • Take a zoomed out approach to your nutrition.  It's so easy for us to want to categorize foods as "good" or "bad" or use a certain ingredient exclusively once we know it's "healthy."  However, our bodies need a variety of nutrients so it's important to diversify and eat all foods sensibly.  For example, coconut oil is now being recognized as a healthy fat, but that doesn't mean you should eat it 5x a day.  Be sensible and consider other high fat ingredients in your diet too (avocados, nuts, coconut, chocolate, etc) when balancing your meals.
  • Store your oils properly.  Light, heat, and time are the enemies of oil, so store your oils in dark bottles (or in a cabinet) in a cool temperature and use them up quickly.

Now that we've covered the basics, here are my top 4 oils!

The 4 Healthy Cooking Oils Always in My Kitchen

1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What is it: The first, cold pressing of oil out of olives.  No heat or chemical extraction can be used.
When to use: EVOO should be used for raw or low heat cooking (gentle sautes, soups, etc). My general rule of thumb is that I don't use EVOO when I want crisping or browning since I know the heat needs to be turned up.
Specific characteristics to look for: Unfortunately, there's some scandal in the olive oil world, and lab tests have shown that even popular brands of "extra virgin olive oil" are cut with other cheaper oils, so it's hard to know what you are getting.  Know your grower, or check out this 2011 University of California PDF.  
My go-to brand: California Olive Ranch. It passed the UC analysis but it's also affordable and has a pleasant, versatile taste.  Not too pungent or acrid for the average palate.

2. Avocado Oil

What is it: Oil pressed from the flesh of avocados. It has a light, buttery, slightly avocado taste but I find it's fairly neutral.
When to use: Avocado Oil can take medium-high heat (but not super high).  I use it for recipes I don't want and olive oil taste in (like Asian recipes) and when I'm turning up the heat a little like in a stirfry or making pan-fried veggie cakes.
Specific characteristics to look for: Look for the terms expeller-pressed or unrefined
Substitutions: My higher heat oil is the one I'm always switching up, so if you aren't feeling the avocado, don't stress it.  I alternate buying grapeseed oil (inexpensive and great for high heat), high oleic sunflower oil, sesame oil, and safflower oil.  
My go-to brand: La Tournagelle

3. Virgin Coconut Oil

What is it: An unrefined oil made from the flesh or "meat" of coconuts. It's considered a plant-based saturated fat which means it's solid at room temperature.
When to use: Tastewise, it's important to remember that this oil will impart a lightly coconuty flavor to your recipes so I tend to use it in baked goods, Asian or Indian recipes or with complementary foods like sweet potatoes or root vegetables.  Virgin coconut oil can take medium-high heat so it's OK for sautes, roasted vegetables but not deep frying or anything like that.  Because it's a saturated fat, it can often substitute for butter in baking recipes if you multiply the quantity of butter needed by 70%.
Specific characteristics to look for: Virgin, Unrefined, cold or expeller pressed and Fair Trade.
My go-to brand: Nutiva Naturals--Organic and in a glass jar if I can find it.

4. Ghee (Indian Clarified Butter)

What is it: Butter that has been gently heated to evaporate the water and then strained of its milk solids (the little white flecks you see when you heat butter).  This process makes the ghee shelf stable--it doesn't need to be refrigerated--and allows it to be heated high.
When to use: Anytime you want an amazing buttery taste!  Since ghee is lightly toasted, you need just a bit of it to give you rich, buttery flavor.  Ghee can also be heated high so its great for sautes and pan-frying and is the traditional fat in many North Indian recipes.  Ghee is considered healing and grounding in Ayurveda too.
Specific characteristics to look for: Use the same principles you'd use if you were shopping for any dairy product: Organic, locally produced, free from antibiotics and hormones, etc.  If you have a butter you like, you can DIY ghee easily.
My go-to brand: Organic Valley.  You'll generally find it either in the international aisle or with other oils.

What are you go-to cooking oils?  Share your thoughts below.