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A Guide to Cooking Oils

Cooking and Pouring Oils

When it comes to eating healthy food, it matters how we prepare it in our cooking oils.

The fragrance of olive oil infused with garlic reminds me of my childhood and that of home-cooked meals.  When I became a mother, and now as a nutritionist, cooking has always been more than following recipes but alchemy to better health for my growing family and for my clients.  I learned along the way that cooking can be complicated and messy but then so is life, so I began to sort out the chaos in my kitchen.

What if I told you there is one ingredient in your pantry that can impact your health for the better.  Can you guess it? We use it daily and without it, our meals would be lacking flavor and missing a conductor of heat… yes cooking oils!  In this guide, we will examine cooking oils and how to confidently cook with them. I believe cooking is a type of alchemy, a home cook that transforms ingredients into healthy nourishing meals…. getting a good grip on cooking oils is that powerful of an alchemist tool.

What are Cooking Oils?

We forget that cooking oils are simply fats, and our bodies need a variety of healthy fats found naturally in different oils.  Remember fats are needed for hormone production, to build healthy cells, and help us absorb fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.  Fats are highly concentrated, and therefore precious foods. When it comes to eating healthy food, it matters how we prepare it in our cooking oils.

Why an Oil Change Pantry Audit?

Ideally, every kitchen should have at least three different oils with various smoke points and fat profiles: one for high-heat cooking, one for basic low- to moderate-temperature cooking, and one flavorful variety such as sesame or flaxseed, for international dishes and dressings.

Selecting the oil and the way you use it, frying, gentle sauteing, or using it cold and raw makes a big difference. It is knowing the “smoke point” of each oil that will keep you in the safety zone. It’s worth it to audit your cooking oils today.

Not every oil is created the same and not all cook equally.  As a home cook like you, it was so important to me to understand the difference between oils and for once get to the bottom of the confusing terms on labels like unrefined and refined.

EVOO. The Unrefined Oil.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It is a popular and widely used example of an unrefined oil pressed from the olive seed without using chemical solvents to process the oil.  Unrefined oils are more nutritious because they are filtered only lightly. For this reason, they are not shelf-stable, and the smoke point is best at moderate to low temperatures.  Their natural resins and other beneficial particles burn easily and develop unpleasant flavors and unhealthful properties if overheated.

Therefore generally speaking all Unrefined oils are best used in salad dressings or cooked with low to moderate temperatures like sauteing or baking.  If you love the taste of extra virgin olive oil as I do, keep an eye on your skillet, gently releasing the aromatics, turning the heat down when necessary, and gently tossing greens to cook in heated olive oil preserving the nutritional quality. If you bake with unrefined oils expect the flavor to be more pronounced.  That’s why I love to sauté my greens in extra virgin olive oil for its delicious fragrance and taste! It can be one of the most expensive oils so make sure you cook with it with a watchful eye as to not go past that smoke point and not waste your precious gold.

Nothing PURE OR LIGHT about Refined Oils

Many home cooks are confused when they see olive oil labeled pure or light. This is refined oil.  The second main type of cooking oil you need to understand.  Refined oils are processed to neutralize the flavor, increase shelf life and that means a higher smoke point up to 465 degrees. This process strips away any nutritional quality of its antioxidants, vitamins, and other benefits compared to cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil.  Rarely do home cooks need to go to such extreme temperatures to forgo nutritional value.  If you cook in high temperatures like browning meat or frying, I recommend a traditional ancestral oil like schmaltz or tallow which is advantageous both in smoke point and nutritional value.

Saturated Fat in Cooking 

Yes, schmaltz and tallow are saturated fat. These animal fats that are pastured raised are excellent cooking options. Oxidation not saturation is the real issue impacting our health. When oils undergo oxidation, they react with oxygen to form free radicals and harmful compounds that you definitely don’t want to be consuming.

Ancestral Cooking Methods

We used robust saturated fat – it was dependable and widely available for home cooks versus today’s modern-day so-called frankenfats.  Since the 1950’s vegetable oils like canola soybean and corn oil are some of the most unreal food in our modern food system and there is no vegetable to gain. These oils are typically processed using harsh petroleum-based chemicals to increase their shelf life and worst of all they oxidize and degrade when heated to release toxic compounds of all kinds including a group of inflammatory compounds called aldehydes.  Heart disease, gastric damage, and cancer among other chronic diseases are linked to these compounds – best not to fear stable real high quality saturated fat compared to these industrial oils.

Schmaltz is Yiddish for chicken fat and has been used in the Jewish faith for centuries because their religious beliefs did not use dairy-like butter to cook with. And so they resorted to rendered chicken fat. Talk to any chef today that uses schmaltz to fry up French fries and they will tell you the experience is delightful! The downside to schmaltz –  it isn’t vegan.  And so that is why I recommend Coconut Oil, a saturated plant-based stable fat.

“Olive You” Coconut oil and Beyond

Coconut oil is a high-quality plant-based oil extracted or pressed from mature coconut meat.  A heat-safe vegan option that takes medium to high heat well because of the stable saturated fat.  If you like to bake Unrefined Coconut oil is the ideal oil with its incredibly sweet and tropical flavor.

Grass-fed Ghee is butter that has been clarified – meaning heated and separated to create oil without the milk proteins.  It is another pantry option to have on hand for high smoke points for home cooks and is equally delicious stirred into hot foods and drinks.

Flaxseed and or hemp oil are the best choices to use raw and in cold preparations like salads and or smoothies. These additional oils will round out the fat profile providing you with essential omega 3 fatty acids. The fragile polyunsaturated fat is prone to oxidation and rancidity, use only raw and it is best to store in the fridge.

Cooking is part art, science, and breaking bread with family and friends around our tables. Home cooks are now the wiser in which to impart flavor and nutrition to each meal when choosing the right oil.  Extra Virgin olive, Schmaltz, Coconut, Ghee, Hemp, or Flaxseed oil are curated for every home cook’s need.  Each oil has a fat profile ranging from saturated, monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fat – with a spectrum of smoke points taste, and a variety of real healthy fats.  Curating your pantry with these cooking oils and understanding how to use them will be a collection of good health. Can you add to this list?

What is your go-to favorite everyday cooking oil? As the holidays are upon us – What other questions you may have in using these oils in your holiday dishes –  please share in the comments below – till next time Bon Appetit and keep dancing!

Additional information:

Natural fats contain varying ratios of three types of fats: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated.

  • Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and very stable. They resist oxidation, meaning they do not turn rancid easily, and they often can tolerate higher cook temperatures.
  • Polyunsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and generally the least stable for cooking. They oxidize easily and are found in safflower and sunflower oils, if not labeled for high heat or “high oleic.”
  • Monounsaturated fats also are liquid at room temperature and generally are more stable than polyunsaturates. They are found in canola, nuts, and olives.


Should I heat oil to the smoke point?

No. If oil smokes in the pan, discard it. The temperature is too high. Clean the pan and start over at a lower temperature. The point where oil smokes signals that the oil has been damaged and potentially cancer-causing properties have formed.

Which oils are genetically engineered?

Soy, corn, canola, and cotton are the most common genetically engineered (GE) crops and all are cooking oil sources. I recommend not buying any of these oils, except canola oils that are Certified Organic or Non-GMO Project Verified if necessary.

Can I use olive oil for all of my cooking?

Extra virgin olive oil deserves its reputation as a healthy culinary oil. It contains heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and phenols — protective compounds that provide numerous benefits. But to maximize the health benefits, I recommend using it raw for salads and dips.  Author and Fat Expert Mary Enig explains in her book “Know your Fats” dispels the myth that cooking with olive oil isn’t stable, and light cooking with it over medium heat (less than 400 degrees) is considered safe.

I’ve heard I should not use canola oil. Why?

It is true that more than 90 percent of the canola grown in the United States is GMO, but organic and non-GMO sources are available at certain markets.  Canola was bred from rapeseed, which 30 years ago contained elevated levels of erucic acid considered harmful to humans. Today’s canola contains less than two percent of this controversial fatty acid.


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