Whether you’re pro-banting or a high fat diet skeptic, oils are crucial in the diet and provide the body with vital nutrients, including essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins like E and K. The supermarket shelves are lined with a wide range of oils made from various nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. It can be confusing to know which oil should be used for which function, and you might default to your favourite to fulfil all the requirements in your kitchen. But not all oils should be used for all applications. The oil used should be chosen according to what we’re doing with it, be it frying, sauteing, baking or dressing.
Because heating certain oils can change their chemical characteristics, a healthy oil can become unhealthy if heated too much. Some oils are more resistant to damage by heat than others and can withstand long periods of frying or high cooking temperatures without breaking down. The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which the oil starts to burn and literally smokes, degrading phytochemicals, nutrients and destroying their characteristic taste and aroma. Oils with a high smoke point are therefore the best to use for frying. Here are some basic guidelines on the most commonly used oils so you can choose the right one when cooking.
Extra virgin olive oil
This is one of the most popular oils because everybody knows it’s a healthy choice and it’s widely available. But this unrefined oil doesn’t have a high smoke point so it’s not good to use for frying. It should be used for sautéing at low temperatures, dressing salads, and adding to dips.
Pure olive oil has been refined and treated with heat. It means it is more neutral tasting than extra virgin olive oil and usually has a lighter colour. It has a higher smoke point so it is a much better choice for frying than the extra virgin variety.
Avocado oil is becoming more and more easily available. It’s high smoke point and neutral flavour means it is very versatile and can be used for high temperature cooking like frying, roasting, grilling and baking.
Flaxseed oil is naturally very high in omega 3 fatty acids, so it can be a great source if you don’t include a lot of fatty fish in your diet. However, it is a very sensitive oil with a low smoke point and for this reason its best eaten unheated, for example in salads. It has a strong nutty taste.
Canola oil is very affordable and easily available. Its high smoke point and neutral flavour means it can be used for many functions, and it is one of the most popular cooking oils.
Coconut oil is the only oil on this list that can either be liquid or solid depending on the temperature. Because its characteristics are similar to butter, it is very useful as a vegan alternative when baking.