“¿Y el aceite esta en especial esta semana?” Is the oil on sale this week?
I scan through the circular for that familiar yellow bottle and told her, “si mami, esta en especial. Un galon por $5.99.” Yes Mom, it’s on sale. One gallon for $5.99.
“¿Que? Vamos aprovechar y comprar tres. Ya casi no esta acabando.” What?! Let’s take advantage and buy three. We’re almost out of oil.
I knew she would love hearing that the oil was on sale and that her reaction would be enthusiastic to the extreme. Anytime the cooking oil was on sale, it was reason to celebrate given how much we went through in a week.
Mazola, a popular brand of corn oil, is ever present in my parent’s home and it was an integral part of my basic culinary training as a dutiful Latina daughter. The beginning of nearly every meal was a pour of that oil into your pot or pan to cook up the Dominican dish of the day. It never occurred to me that there were other kinds of oils out there until I left home for college and faced buying my own groceries for the very first time.
I’ve moved past the days of coupon hunting for Mazola discounts for my mom, and am now keen on broadening my cooking oil horizon. This past year I spent significant time studying different kinds of oils and learning more about their nutritional benefits and the best way to use them in various dishes.
Although I grew up with corn oil as the staple used in my family’s cooking and most Dominican households I visited used the same, there are many recipes that call for lard, olive and canola oils throughout Latin America. Olive oil was introduced to Latin America by the Spanish colonists that settled in the 16th century and it has since been adopted into the cuisine. The marketing of canola oil as a cheap and healthy alternative (heavily processed vegetable oil with monounsaturated fats which are healthier for you than saturated fat in lard) has made this a popular choice in both Latino and American kitchens for cooking and baking.
When I began transforming my recipes several years ago by gradually substituting the full fat and refined grain ingredients for healthier ones, canola was a solid standby on my shelf, especially in baking. Since then I’ve eliminated corn and canola completely given their heavily processed nature and the presence of GMOs. As I learned more about oils and how to use them, I realized that there are so many choices out there and I needed to figure out what would work best for my style of healthy cooking and baking.
Cooking oil is used in some form all over the world as a component of many different dishes ranging from sweet to savory. The oil and vinegar oils in modern supermarkets display a wide variety of oils that can leave the average person overwhelmed, especially if they haven’t used anything but corn, canola or olive oil in their own kitchens.
Whether they’re nut-based, plant-based, animal-based, or seed-based, oils serve an important role in cooking. This variety, however, should not be a deterrent if you’re looking for a healthy oil that will get you through most meals without being too difficult to find or overly exotic or expensive. Unless you’re an adventurous chef who likes to experiment with different ingredients without any trepidation (I’ll take on this role for you!), there is no need to stock more than three different kinds of oils for daily use.
Which three should you purchase? Here are my suggestions to get you started!
Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil
This is the number one oil with the broadest uses that I keep stocked on my shelf. Outside of the pan, coconut oil is admirably versatile, with uses ranging from hair conditioner to skin moisturizer to fueling engines in the Philippines. I have several jars of this stuff just to use for beauty purposes and have since gotten rid of most of my lotions in favor of the oil.
In the kitchen, coconut oil can be used in both cooking and baking. It’s usually in a solid state when purchased and requires melting prior to using it in recipes. Part of the appeal of using this oil is its high smoke point (the temperature at which it begins to break down) of 350° F. This makes coconut oil a great option for stir-frying and sauteing.
Many of the paleo and healthier baking recipes I’ve seen use coconut oil as the primary fat of choice. Typically butter or canola is used for cookies, cakes, and pastries but coconut oil (along with nut butters) provide a great alternative in baked goods. This may require a bit of experimentation if you are substituting for a recipe, but the ratio is typically 1:1.
It’s fairly easy to find these days with Trader Joe’s offering the best value at $5.99 for a jar and even a convenient cooking spray. Depending on how much cooking and baking you do, a jar can last for several months, providing good value for your money.
Coconut oil is experiencing a bit of a vogue these days with everyone celebrating the coconut and its many byproducts as the best thing since sliced bread. It’s the new black if you will. Despite its popularity, there is some debate over its position as a health food.
Coconut oil is very high in saturated fats which means that as much as I love it, I’m also mindful of how much I’m using in my recipes. The sticking point here, however, is the type of saturated fat found in coconut oil. Lauric acid, a saturated fat that is also present in breast milk, is found in great quantities in coconut oil and its purported to have antiviral and antibacterial properties. Other health benefits from lauric acid and coconut oil include promoting healthy metabolism, health health, and a stronger immune system.
The other element here is the use of extra virgin oil. The medium-chain fatty acids found in oil that has not been heavily processed or refined is actually better for you and your cholesterol than the hydrogenated and highly processed vegetable oils that contain trans fats with long-chain fatty acids.
Moderation and quality are key. I embrace a diet that incorporates healthy fats responsibly because fat like protein and carbs, is an essential nutrient. A lot of that fat will come into your diet in the form of oil and its important to keep that in mind when using any oil.
Extra-Virgin Cold-Pressed Olive Oil
If coconut oil is my number one in the all-around category, EVOO (thank you Rachel Ray for that handy acronym) is my winner for flavor and health. It’s on par with coconut oil for it’s additional benefits as another great hair conditioner, moisturizer, and nail treatment.
Before I started using coconut oil, I used EVOO for all of my cooking. From salads, to stir-frys, sautes, pasta dishes, and in some cases, even baking, olive oil was my go-to standard for practically everything.
Once I learned more about smoke points and how oils are best used in food, I realized that I could use EVOO as a way to enhance the flavor in vegetable dishes and salads instead of as a primary cooking agent. The smoke point is much lower than coconut oil at a range of 200°-300° F, making it a better choice for cold dishes.
Olive oil comes in many different forms and can vary in taste depending on where it comes from. Given its ubiquity in Mediterranean cuisines, you’ll often see olive oils distinguished by their origin country. Olives, like grapes, imbue specific flavor notes into the oil that are particular to their growing region. Which olive oil should you buy?
Growing region matters less, in my opinion, than the process used to make the oil. I only use extra-virgin and cold-pressed as opposed to pure or light olive oils that can also be found on supermarket shelves. Those oils are often cheaper and each some blend of virgin and refined oils. I prefer making the investment for extra virgin, but you can find affordable options at places like Trader Joes and Whole Foods.
Why extra-virgin and cold pressed olive oil?
Extra virgin means that the oil is only extracted through a process known as cold pressing which helps it retain all of its flavor, aroma and nutritional value. The extra-virgin label applies to the oil that comes from the first pressing of olives making this the best-tasting and most premium batch.
The nutritional benefits are apparent, especially in light of the recent consensus within the health community that the Mediterranean diet, which has a long history of using olive oil, is the healthiest diet around.
Olive oil contains 10g of monounsaturated fats (MUFAs), 2g of polyunsaturated fats, and 2g of saturated fats per serving. The high MUFA count, especially in oleic acid, may actually help reduce your blood cholesterol by encouraging an increase in HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which is considered much healthier than LDL (low-density lipoprotein) given its correlation to good cardiovascular health.
This is all nutritional science lingo used to reinforce the benefits that EVOO may have for your heart and blood cholesterol levels if consumed in moderation with a balanced diet. There are the added benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, including vitamin E, that can be found in EVOO.
As with coconut oil, moderation is key. One tablespoon of EVOO has approximately 120 calories and 14g of fat (in a combination of MUFA, PUFA, and saturated outlined above). I used to plow through a baguette or ciabatta loaf with a small plate of olive oil on the side, thinking that this was healthier than spreading butter. Guess what? Not so much. A little bit goes a long way with really good extra-virgin olive oil. you’ll find that as you begin to experiment with your cooking, you may use less and less of the oil and learn to measure it out instead of liberally pouring it into a bowl or pan.
Avocado oil is a recent addition I made to my pantry and its become an instant favorite. I have a not-so-secret love for avocados and their many health and beauty benefits. I eat them almost daily and put them in everything as a side. I even throw them into protein smoothies (delicious by the way!).
While researching oil, I learned that avocado oil is a great option that offers up the incredible health benefits of avocado with a high smoke point of 400° F. It became a great alternative for many of the hot dishes that I’d normally cook in EVOO and provided a nice change of pace from coconut oil as well. You can use avocado oil for frying, sauteing, dipping, baking, and for cold dishes as well. It has a mild, buttery taste with hints of avocado flavoring, which I find more subtle than coconut oil in some dishes.
Avocado oil shares a similar fat and calorie profile to olive oil, which means that it also has a high MUFA count and can have a positive impact on your cardiovascular health. The same is true of the fruit and is why I make it a point to go for avocado as a main fat source in my diet.
Current research into avocado oil indicates it has a strong role in combating destructive free radicals in the body that contribute to aging, heart disease, and cancer. Along with its antioxidant power, avocado oil boasts omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E among its health benefits.
The one drawback to avocado oil is that it can be pricey and somewhat hard to find. It’s relatively new in the culinary market and can still be considered a specialty item depending on where you’re looking. One can of oil can cost you upwards of $10! Note that it should be refrigerated once opened otherwise it can go rancid.
I’ve found the investment worthwhile, however, and it provides a nice balance to my cooking.
There are so many choices out there and I believe its worth your time to experiment with different oils. This list is in no way meant to be definitive for you or for me. I’ve heard grapeseed oil is another fantastic option which I hope to try soon. If you want something for your Asian-inspired dishes, than perhaps you should give sesame oil a try. It’s your kitchen and you’re the one cooking, so why not take the time to figure out what you like best? Cooking should be fun as well as healthy, so get out there and have some fun!
Are there other cooking oils not mentioned here that you use? Share your tips and suggestions if you’re using something that has worked out well for you!
**Please note: this list is a suggestion based on personal experience and not meant to be taken in place of the advice or diagnosis of a medical or dietitian professional. If you have more questions about how various cooking oils may affect your health, especially if you have a condition, please consult your physician or nutritionist.**
- Cooking Oil Simplified, Fox News
- Coconut Oil Benefits, Huffington Post
- Coconut oil and saturated fats can make you healthy, Dr. Mercola via mercola.com
- What’s in your olive oil?, WebMD
- What are cold pressed oils?, WHFoods
- Olive oil nutrition facts, Discovery Health
- Avocado oil could beat heart disease, cancer, and signs of ageing, Huffington Post
- The healthiest alternatives to olive oil, Health.com