Cooking Oils 101: What should I cook with?

oilThere are so many types of cooking oils now that it can be pretty confusing when you’re standing in the supermarket aisle looking at a wall of choices. We look at some of the main things you should know about oils, where they come from and how you should use them.

Cooking oil lingo

Here are some of the key things to know when it comes to cooking oils and fats:

Saturated fats – these are usually seen as the ‘bad’ fats as diets heavy in saturated fat are often linked to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease. Saturated fats are usually found in animal products such as cheese, butter, and fatty cuts of meat. However, some plant-based products can also be higher in saturated fats (when compared with other plant-based oils) such as Coconut Oil, Cottonseed Oil and Palm Kernel Oil.

Monosaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats are generally found in plant-based products and are usually seen as the ‘good’ fats as they can help lower your risk of heart disease if used instead of trans fats and saturated fats.

Smoke point – this refers to the temperature a cooking oil or fat can be cooked at until it starts to break down. This is the point where the oil’s flavour and nutritional qualities will start to degrade. So basically, the higher the smoke point, the better it will be to cook with over heat.

Which oil should I use?

Part of it comes down to personal preference and often budget, although some are healthier for you to use than others which could also influence your decision. Each type of oil has it’s own properties and adds different flavours to your cooking. As a rough guide:

If you’re making a salad, dips or dressings, use: Avocado oil, extra virgin Olive oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, flaxseed oil.

If you’re cooking with oil, use: Varieties with a moderate or high smoke point which include avocado oil, grapeseed, rice bran oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sesame oil.

Here’s a bit more information on a few oils:

Olive Oil

There are a number of different kinds of olive oil – basically they can be divided into two kinds, virgin or refined. When you see the words ‘extra virgin’, ‘virgin’ or ‘ordinary’ on a label, you’re purchasing olive oil that has been created from fresh olives that have been pressed with minimum heat. Use them if you want healthy, flavourful olive oil as-is (i.e. drizzled on your salad), cooking with this kind of oil can destroy its flavour and a number of its nutritional qualities.

Refined olive oils are made from the leftovers of virgin olive oil pressing which means that heat or chemicals are usually needed to get whatever’s left out of the olives. Refined oils can usually be spotted by the words ‘light’ or ‘pure’; they often have very little colour, aroma or taste. And no, unfortunately ‘light’ does not mean it contains less fat! You can cook with these and use them as you would a vegetable oil.

Avocado Oil

Avocado oil is made from pressed avocado pulp and can help reduce high cholesterol levels. It’s becoming more common on supermarket shelves and there are a wide variety of infused flavours available. It has a high smoke point which means that it is healthy to cook with. It’s distinctive creamy natural flavour goes great in dressings and on salads.

Coconut Oil

Virgin coconut oil appears to be a new ‘trend’ oil to use for cooking as far as sales stats go, thanks – in part – to Aussie Victoria’s Secret model Miranda Kerr’s endorsement of it. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat and our National Heart Foundation won’t be giving it the thumbs up any time soon, however, despite the lack of evidence to prove the positives outweight the downsides, it’s rapidly becoming more recognised for its nutritional benefits and has long been used in Pacific and Asian cooking for its sweet flavour. It also has a high smoke point so it can be used for cooking.

Image / Flickr – Cottonseedoil

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