The Best Cooking Oils: For Your Heart and Wallet

By Andrea Karim on 4 January 2012 (Updated 13 September 2013) 28 comments
Photo: Jonny Hughes

Have you ever stared down several shelves of cooking oil and had no idea what to buy? Wondered what's the best cooking oil to use? Vegetable oil, olive oil, sunflower oil, canola oil — which cooking oil is good for me? Which oil is best for baking?

Here to help is a quick breakdown of the various cooking oils generally available on supermarket shelves. The good news is, with a couple of exceptions, that the calorie counts for most cooking oils is pretty much the same, and most have similar levels of saturated versus unsaturated fats. With a couple of exceptions (like coconut oil), you generally can't go wrong in choosing a cooking (or baking) oil, although it doesn't hurt to know the various smoke points of cooking oils (the temperature at which an oil is damaged by heat).

Cooking oils do vary in price and in usefulness, though, so here's how to choose the right cooking oil for the right job. (See also: Healthy, Frugal Eating)

Peanut Oil

Peanut oil is one of the most popular cooking oils in the U.S., as it is both inexpensive and relatively low in saturated fat. More highly refined peanut oils have all the allergens removed, so it's not as risky, but cold-pressed oil can still put you in the hospital if you are allergic to peanuts. Refined peanut oil performs also brilliantly at high temperatures and is a favorite for deep-frying (everything from fried chicken to thanksgiving turkey to potato chips). The slightly nutty flavor is appreciated in many Asian cuisines, so consider it for stir-fry as well.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 120
Smoke point: 450°F (232°C)
Saturated fat: 1.5 grams
Unsaturated fat: 10.5 grams
Cost: Peanut oil can cost anywhere from $11 to $33/gallon. Unlike olive oil, though, peanut oil isn't often cut with cheaper oils (see the olive oil section below), so even lower-end peanut oil should be a safe bet.

Overall grade: B (good price, light flavor, decent health benefits)

Canola Oil (Vegetable Oil, Safflower Oil)

Canola oil (so similar to safflower and vegetable oil that I've lumped them all together here) has one of the lowest saturated fat levels of any commercially available cooking oil. It's also among the cheapest and most readily available, thanks to heavy government subsidies (in both the US and Canada) of the canola production industry (also the case for soy). This isn't to knock canola oil — it's light, flavorless, and generally inoffensive to the taste buds. It is frequently used for baking, making popcorn, and general cooking.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 124
Smoke point: 375-450°F (190-232°C)
Saturated fat: 1 gram
Unsaturated fat: 10.3 grams
Cost: Cheaper brands of canola oil run about $0.06/ounce.

Overall grade: B (good price, no flavor, OK health benefits)

Sesame Oil

Sesame oil has a rich, nutty aroma that gives many Chinese food dishes their distinctive flavor. Sesame oil is also rich in antioxidants. Sesame oil can be used as skin therapy, if you don't mind smelling like a tasty dish. In studies, sesame oil has also been shown to reduce blood pressure in men with hypertension. Because it has such a toasty flavor, sesame oil can overwhelm more delicate dishes, so go easy on it. Adding a teaspoon to your bottle of salad dressing can add flavor and nutrition without overwhelming your palate.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 120
Smoke point: 450°F (232°C)
Saturated Fat: 1.9 grams
Unsaturated Fat: 11 grams
Cost: $0.16/ounce

Overall grade: A (higher price, great taste, good health benefits)

Flaxseed Oil

Is flaxseed oil good for cooking? In a word, no. Think of flaxseed oil as a very healthy garnish. Flaxseed oil contains all kinds of omega-3 and omega-6 goodness, and is best consumed in the raw. It's a delicate oil that should be kept in the refrigerator. Its low smoke point means that it isn't particularly useful for cooking or baking. Flaxseed oil does have a slightly bitter taste, but that flavor can be masked by whatever food it is served with. Try using a couple of tablespoons as a part of your salad dressing, or drizzle over roasted vegetables before serving.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 120
Smoke point: 225°F (107°C)
Saturated fat: 1.3 grams
Unsaturated fat: 11.2 grams
Cost: As low as $0.73/ounce

Overall grade: B (expensive, weird taste, fantastic health benefits, not that useful for cooking)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

We've been told for years that extra virgin olive oil is bursting with healthful goodness, and that we should pour it all over everything. It's full of the good kind of fat! It has antioxidants! It reduces heart disease! It has natural anti-inflammatory compounds! The good news is that all of that is true. The bad news? Your brand of olive oil might not be extra virgin olive oil. Olive oil is among the most adulterated food products sold on the world market. This has been a dirty little secret of the European industry for a number of years, and is becoming more widely known as the newly published book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

Like most plant-based oils, olive oil clocks in at about 120 calories per tablespoon with 2 grams of saturated fat. The amount of unsaturated fat in olive oil, however, means that olive oil protects against heart disease and even help control blood sugars in diabetics. An anti-oxidant known as DHPEA-EDA, which can help protect red blood cells and reduce the amount of low density lipoproteins (LDLs — the bad cholesterol) in the human body, is readily found in olive oil. That is...assuming that you actually are consuming extra virgin olive oil.

If you are using real extra virgin olive oil, and not the adulterated grocery store version, then olive oil isn't actually very good for high-heat cooking. Olive oil can be used for sautéing, of course, but to really enjoy the flavor of true extra-virgin olive oil, it's best used as a dressing for salads, soups, cheeses, and pastas. Highly refined olive oil is stable at higher temperatures, but it lacks the flavor of cold pressed EVOO.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 120
Smoke point: 375-450°F (190-232°C)
Saturated fat: 2 grams
Unsaturated fat: 12.7 grams
Cost: On average, olive oil runs at about $0.50 per ounce (often less; quite often great deal more).

Overall grade: A- (expensive for the real stuff, great taste, amazing health benefits)

Walnut Oil

Like olive oil, walnut oil is an important part of the Mediterranean Diet that we always here so much about. In fact, walnut oil rivals olive oil in terms of anti-inflammatory properties. Walnut oil's smoke point means that it is appropriate for cooking at medium heat, but less useful for high-heat sautéing. It can be used for baking as well.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 120
Smoke point: 320°F (160°C)
Saturated fat: 2 grams
Unsaturated fat: 12 grams
Cost: From $0.62 - $1.25/ounce

Overall grade: A- (expensive, great taste, amazing health benefits)

Avocado Oil

With the highest smoke point of commercially available cooking oil, avocado oil should be more prevalent than it actually is in our diet. High in vitamin E, avocado oil is often used in cosmetics like make-up and skincare remedies. The oil doesn't taste like avocado, so if you're not a fan of the fruit, you can rest assured that the oil is closer in taste to olive oil (but without the acrid or pepper notes).

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 120
Smoke point:  520°F (271°C)
Saturated fat: 2 grams
Unsaturated fat: 12 grams
Cost: $0.61/ounce

Overall grade: A- (pricey, mild taste, good for your health)

Coconut Oil

Extracted from the meat of mature coconuts, coconut oil is somewhat of a darling of the natural foods movement. It's excellent for making popcorn (after popping, add some salt and dried coconut flakes to the popcorn and shake, shake, shake). Coconut oil's subtle flavor means that it can be used for many dishes, but its high level of saturated fat makes it less appealing to those who care about such things. Many people swear by coconut oil as a beauty product.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 117
Smoke point:  350°F (177°C)
Saturated fat: 11.8 grams
Unsaturated fat: 1.8 grams
Cost: $0.50 - $0.80 per ounce

Overall grade: B- (good for the skin, pricey)

Butter

Oh, butter makes everything better, we all know that. So many foods couldn't even exist WITHOUT butter. Do you think that a croissant could have ever come into existence via Crisco? I think not. On the butter-versus-margarine front, we all now know that spreadable butter-substitutes are terrible, packed with trans fats, and not worth the money. But is butter a good choice nutritionally? One Swedish study from 2010 showed that butter consumption actually resulted in lower levels of fat in the blood than canola oil or olive oil. This is thought to have to do with the structure of the acid chains in butter, which are shorter than those in vegetable oil, and perhaps preferred by the human digestive system.

Butter certainly has its place in the baker's kitchen. It's also the very flavor that takes popcorn from puffed grain to hot, awesome deliciousness. And butter has even worked its way into our drinks — no one ever asks for a cup of "hot oiled rum," after all.

Serving size: 1 tablespoon (14 grams)
Calories: 102
Smoke point:  250–300°F (121–149°C)
Saturated fat: 7.3 grams
Unsaturated fat: 4.2 grams
Cost: $500 per pound...in Norway

Overall grade: A++++ 

What's your favorite oil for cooking or baking? Do you use a variety of oils in your kitchen? Do you use oil at all?

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Guest's picture
Suzanne Favreau

Interesting article...especially the info on EVOO. Readers might like to know that canola oil (unless you're buying organic) is made from crops that have been genetically modified. Since I don't want to eat GM food, I think it's worth the extra money to buy organic canola oil.

Andrea Karim's picture

Hi, Suzanne,

Thanks for mentioning that. My first draft of the article included an angry rant against Monsanto, but then I took it out. But yes, for people who want to avoid GM crops, canola and corn oil are tricky.

Guest's picture

I tend to use EV olive oil for salads and to line my pizza stone and canola for everything else. I did try some grape seed oil a while back which I used to garnish pasta and really enjoyed it (but it was pricey). With all these healthy oils available, you have to wonder why people would use the bad stuff.

James
http://blog.jvf.com

Marla Walters's picture

Andrea, in your research, did you see anything about Costco's "Kirkland" brand of olive oil? I have been buying that, but am now hoping I haven't been duped. Great, informative post!

Andrea Karim's picture

Hi, Marla. I actually use the same brand, so I did try to find out more about it - in fact, I was planning a big article around olive oil and the adulteration in the industry, but I found a lot of problems with the study that UC Davis conducted. No one in the industry seems to have established the correct chemical markers to identify olive oil (and this would have to be done annually, and there would be regional variations), so many of the oils that failed to qualify as "extra virgin" were disqualified in taste tests (there are flavor qualities that partly determine olive oil's virgin v. extra virgin status).

The thing is, it's apparently fairly easy to doctor up substandard olive oil, or even non-olive oil, by adding some beta carotene to it. According to the author of the book mentioned in the article, doctoring olive oil is standard practice in Europe, and the research from UC Davis bears this out - imported oils (especially from Span and Italy) failed the EVOO taste test more than 70% of the time. Then again, it doesn't mean that oil failing the test isn't OLIVE oil, but that it doesn't qualify as EVOO based on taste.

The UC Davis study found that California-produced olive oils fared better in taste tests - only 10% of the samples failed. BUT, then again, the study was sponsored by California olive growers.

So you can see that it's complicated. Also, there's the question of just how much better for you EVOO is than, say, regular old virgin olive oil. There haven't been long-term studies performed to see if anti-oxidant content is high enough in EVOO to really justify the cost of it.

Mikey Rox's picture

I cook almost exclusively with EVOO and butter. Love me some butter. :)

Don't Quit Your Day Job's picture

What do you think about Red Palm oil? Haven't gotten any yet, but I've cooked with coconut so it's a logical step (I think).

Also, you could toss Omega 3:6 ratios into this as well if you wanted another criteria on here. Some butters actually still do well by that metric - but I agree, butter is my go-to for cooking!

Andrea Karim's picture

Red Palm, like coconut, seems to get a bad rap for being higher in saturated fat. I'm not sure if it's widely available in North America - I couldn't find it at my local grocery stores, but it is available online. It appears to be high in carotenes (hence the color).

I've never tried it, myself, but it's apparently popular in developing countries (especially in warmer regions where palsm grow).

Guest's picture
Deborah

I use peanut oil for frying, sunflower or safflower oil for salad dressings, butter for baking and bread-spread, and EVOO for most everything else.Most people feel that canola oil is tasteless, but to me it has a distinct and unpleasant taste. Sort of metallic and/or chemical-ly. Maybe a residue of the processing method? Never tried an organic canola oil, but would be willing to give it a shot. Anyone know of a good brand?

Guest's picture

Sorry to be a nay sayer in this.

But oil is healthy, least of all healthy for one's heart.

If sugar is defined as junk food, junk food being it has no nutritional value, but offers empty calories, where would that define oil? Oil, has twice the amount of calories per gram of sugar, 100% fat and no viamins, minerals or fiber.

When it's written about oil being healthy, it's more like which oil is less deleterious to one's health. Oil damages the endothelium, the cell wall that lines our arteries.

Andrea Karim's picture

Interesting - I can't find any published studies that substantiate what you say. Can you offer some links?

Guest's picture

I don't know about your info on the endothelium, I would have to research further into that.

On oil being junk food and 100% fat - remember that eating fat is a necessity for healthy living. Omega 3 acids can be found in some of these oils - (olive especially) and they are essential.

Some oils mentioned (Canola in particular) are definitely NOT healthy. Others, like Coconut and butter, are tremendously healthy.

Guest's picture
Guest

I use a variety of oils and butter to cook. Grape seed oil is a great choice as well because it has a high smoke point like avocado oil, but it is almost flavorless. It is great for sweeter tasting foods like French toast or baked goods. I never use flaxseed oil because you can get the same benefits by using flaxseed meal plus the added fiber and cancer reducing benefits. Just make sure any oil you get is extracted appropriately without chemicals otherwise all the health benefits are for naught.

Andrea Karim's picture

I use grape seed oil and almond oil mixed with my facial cleanser, but I have to admit that I've never cooked with them. Thanks for the recommendation!

Guest's picture
Guest

I am surprised at the omission of Rice Bran Oil, one of the few oils that does not form trans fat (far worse for one's heart and cardiovascular health than saturated fat) when heated to smoke point. Yes, it is a little pricier (about 30% more expensive here in Western Australia) than the cheap canola oil and blended vegetable oils, but what price one's health? I just use far less (I use a pump spray and lightly spray my pans, instead of pouring) for better results.

Andrea Karim's picture

You know, I came across rice bran oil in my caloric research, but I have to admit that I have not seen it on grocery shelves here in the US. I'm sure it's available, but it's not common. Do you like the taste?

Guest's picture
Susan D.

I use grapeseed oil as my all-purpose cooking and baking oil; I found out about it in Mark Bittman's book How to Cook Everything. Bittman suggests using either corn oil or grapeseed oil; since I dislike corn oil I tried grapeseed instead. It doesn't smoke at higher temperatures. What really surprised me is how dramatically it improves the taste of baked goods. I hope I never have to do without it!

Guest's picture
Guest

@Andrea Karim:

Rice Bran oil has little or no taste. It is one of the most neutral oils I have tried, and I was skeptical about its claims of being so. I prefer it above all other oils for the fact it does not add any flavour to things I use oil for - including pan-frying, stir-frying and even in recipes that call for oil (like the gluten-free tortillas I used to make). And since I don't like oil in my vinaigrette, it doesn't matter that this oil is of a neutral taste.

It's only been a commonly-found oil on our shelves here in Western Australia for about 18 months, with it being a bit obscure for about a year before that (and non-existent before about 2008) - I suspect somewhere like Whole Foods might either have it or be able to get it in..

Andrea Karim's picture

I will keep an eye out for it, then! I don't shop at whole foods, but maybe it will start appearing in my favorite grocer's soon enough. Thanks for the recommendation!

Guest's picture

One of my favorite cooking oils is ghee. Ghee is clarified butter, meaning all the milk solids have been removed. Because it is pure fat, it can be used at much higher temperatures than butter.
You should be able to find it in the International Food section of most grocery stores, and it's not terribly expensive.
Just tonight for dinner I had a delicious steak that I pan-fried in ghee!

Andrea Karim's picture

Ghee is indeed fantastic - we have a big jar in the pantry.

Guest's picture
Noel

From my knowledge, vegetable oil is a blend of many oils which includes Palm oil. Palm oil is not good for health, so you may want to separate it or add Palm oil as a separate entity.

Andrea Karim's picture

The vegetable oil that I buy is mostly canola, corn, and soy oils. It's not my first choice as far as taste goes, but it's the cheapest oil available to me, so I use it for things like baking or simply coating a pan before cooking eggs. I agree that it's not the most heart-healthy choice, but I don't think it's particularly bad for you, either.

Guest's picture
Guest

Canola oil is terrible! It is an industrial, man-made fat that actually raises cholesterol and oxidizes when heated. All fake fats are unhealthy. The best oil to cook with hands-down is coconut oil. There are unflavored types available if you object to the taste of coconut in everything. Butter is also a great one. Think back to what nourished our ancestors for many years. Then look at the last 30, when all sorts of "heart healthy" franken fats were created. It's no coincidence that the rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes have skyrocketed. Our great grandmothers were not obese; heart disease and cancer were infrequent. Going back to traditional, nourishing fats can restore our health, too. Check out the Weston A. Price Foundation web site for a myriad of information on this.

Guest's picture
Sam

I use Grapeseed Oil. Disappointed I didn't see it on your list. It's very heart healthy, great to cook with, and inexpensive.

Guest's picture
rob

Why do they 'cut' peanut butter with some other ghastly GMO oil, and then take out the peanut oil.... and then CHARGE MORE for the product....Please 'splain' that Lucy. thanx

Guest's picture
Guest

The reason is because in organic/natural peanut butter the peanut oil rises to the top of the jar forcing the consumer to stir the contents before using. The natural peanut oil in industrialized peanut butter is removed and replaced with a partially hydrolyzed (partial solid oil, like Crisco). If the oil is solid, there is no need to stir. Pure peanut oil is far more expensive than the industrial waste it is replaced with. That good peanut oil is sold separately for higher profits. Natural peanut butter is more expensive and far more nutritious.

Guest's picture
Guest

Why was sunflower oil omitted from the article?