When it comes to high-heat cooking, it’s incredibly important to choose a stable oil. For instance, it’s recommended to never use hydrogenated oils, which are high in trans fats. On the other hand, other oils may be a surprise, such as canola, grapeseed, soy, and corn. These oils have components called PUFAs — polyunsaturated fatty acids — which are unstable, especially when they are exposed to heat.
Therefore, not great for frying up those sweet potato fries!
So, what is a cook to do?
Choose high heat-friendly, plant-based oils! Let’s take a deep dive into your pantry and get the skinny on unsafe and safe oils and how to make the best decision for your body and kitchen.
What Makes Cooking Oil Unsafe?
If you love to cook, then you most likely have your favorite oils and generally more than one! Me, I have virgin avocado oil, virgin coconut oil, and extra virgin olive oil on my shelf at all times. Avocado and coconut both go in the frying pan, while that olive oil is generally sprinkled on top of veggies for roasting or used raw on salads.
Yet, for beginners in the kitchen, how do you know which oil to use? On top of that, did you know that some oils are worse for your health when you heat them? Yep, it turns out that some oils break down in the face of certain high heat temperatures and oxidize, which has been linked to unsavory health side effects, including cancer.
The Dangers of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids or PUFAs
Oils are a “product of an extraction and pressing process” mostly from “seeds and nuts, like sunflowers, almonds, walnuts, olives, avocados, coconuts, and even rice bran.” All oils come with their own unique “chemical composition, which means some oils are better suited for salads, while others” are wonderful for searing tofu and veggies.
So, why are some oils unhealthy at high heat?
A lot of this is to blame on the PUFAs — also called “polyunsaturated fats … a type of fatty acid.” Unfortunately, PUFAs find their way into many processed food products and, when exposed to heat, can become damaging to the human body. This is all due to oxidation — the point in which fats “become unstable, go rancid, [and] become toxic.” PUFAs are labeled as “unstable fats” more prone to oxidation, which, in turn, “leads to free radicals” and can cause “cellular damage in your body that can manifest both internally in the form of damaged organs/glands and externally in the form of rapidly aging skin.” On top of that, when consumed, these PUFAs can turn into trans fatty acids within our bodies, and trans fats have been banned in the United States due to their dangerous health ramifications.
Where do you find PUFAs?
Well, the bad news is they’re “present in nearly all foods (even vegetables).” Of course, “small amounts of unprocessed PUFA in a well-balanced diet are unlikely to cause issues,” but the PUFAs you find in cooking oils that are made to be exposed to heat are the dangerous ones. Cooking oils with the highest levels of PUFAs include “canola oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, soybean oil, generic vegetable oils, cottonseed oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, margarine, [and] flaxseed oil.”
A Word on “Refined” Oils
You’re looking at the grocery store shelf, you’ve avoided the above list of obvious offenders, but you’ve now selected a wonderful bottle of refined avocado oil. Avocado oil has one of the highest smoke points, so it should be safe right?
Not exactly. You’ll want to think twice about purchasing a “refined” oil product.
When oil is refined, it’s gone through a process that uses “chemicals that are harmful to us,” whether that means “treated with acid, or purified with an alkali, or bleached.” On top of that, refined may also refer to a product that has been “neutralized, filtered or deodorized … all of which require chemicals like Hexane!”
What else happens during the refining process?
Turns out that this “purity” process leads to the creation of PUFAs!
What’s a Smoke Point?
Choosing an oil that’s safe for your cooking needs depends largely on the level of heat and, therefore, the smoke point that you’ll be cooking with.
Alright, what in the heck is a smoke point?
In short, a smoke point is “the threshold at which the oil becomes unstable.” This means if you’re cooking with high heat, — such as stir-fry — you’ll want an oil that has a high smoke point — “oil that is stable under higher temperatures, meaning it won’t get oxidized, smoke, and become rancid and potentially harmful for consumption.”
Safest High-Heat Plant-Based Oils
If you’re just not sure what to use, it’s best to go with an oil that has a high smoke point. Yet, it’s not choosing a smoke point oil, there’s lots more to it. Ask yourself, what nutrients am I getting from this oil? How about, does this meet my ethical standards? For those looking for high heat-friendly, nutritious, and vegan-friendly oils, here are a few to start with!
The creme de la creme of plant-based oils is truly avocado oil. This oil is relatively new to the scene within the last couple of decades and quickly became a vegan-friendly favorite.
Refined avocado oil has a dramatically high smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit, which means you can pretty much cook at your range’s highest heat and remain safe from those carcinogenic burn effects. With that said, if you’re looking to avoid those “refined” oils, you can also go with virgin avocado oil with a smoke point of 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
Plus, avocado oil is loaded with the many nutrients that plain old avocados have!
Avocado oil is loaded with oleic acid, — a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid — polyunsaturated fat, and saturated fats. You’ll also get a healthy dose of lutein, a “carotenoid that’s naturally found in your eyes,” and may be linked to a reduced “risk of cataracts and macular degeneration.” Along with a slew of vitamins and minerals, due to the high healthy fat content, avocado oil has been shown to help your body absorb nutrients.
Try using avocado oil in these super high heat recipes: Fried “Chicken” and Gravy, Southern-Fried Tofu With Maple Dill Sauce, Fried Rice, Broccoli, Green Bean, and Tofu Stir-fry, Cast-Iron Skillet Bibimbap, or this Banana Peel Stir Fry.
Refined coconut oil has a high smoke point of 450 degrees Fahrenheit, and it also happens to have a wonderfully rich coconutty flavor while also pulling off being a superfood. Looking to avoid processed items? Go with unrefined or virgin coconut oil with a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
All great things!
Coconut oil has quickly become a plant-based eater’s go-to oil. It can pretty much be used for anything under the sun, including baking, frying, and roasting. Coconut oil is perfect for making veggies crispy or thickening up a vegan batter.
This oil is also riddled with health benefits, including increasing your body’s ability to burn fat, killing harmful microorganisms, reducing appetite, and raising your HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), plus coconut oil has been known to boost the health of your hair, skin, and teeth.
One of the most astonishing health aspects of coconut oil is the medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, which are popularly used in bulletproof coffee. MCTs have gained attention over the last few years for their impressive ability to boost fat burning and “provide your body and brain with quick energy.” These medium chain fats “go straight to the liver, where they are used as a quick source of energy or turned into ketones” which are champions at burning fat for energy.
As mentioned, coconut oil is very diverse… as long as you don’t mind a bit of coconutty flavor! Here are a few super-diverse recipes to inspire you! Asian Rice Soup, Zucchini Boats, Crunchy Peanut Butter Squares, Parsnips with Rosemary’ Butter’ and Walnuts, or these Almond Butter Swirl Brownies.
You may think olive oil is best for baking, roasting, dipping, or salad dressings, yet light olive oil is a great substitute for high-heat cooking. Extra light olive oil — also a fancy way of saying “refined” — has a smoke point of 465 degrees Fahrenheit.
Most of us are pretty familiar with extra virgin olive oil with its thick texture and luxurious flavors. Yet, what does “light” or “extra light” mean? These terms refer “to the color and flavor of the olive oil, not its calorie content, and the label on the bottle should say something to this extent.” When looking for that high smoke point olive oil, choose the bottle that says “extra-light olive oil” which means it can “withstand hotter temperatures before breaking down.”
Olive oil is known far and wide for its wonderful health benefits, including decreasing heart disease, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing blood clots, reducing the risk of cancer, and lowering inflammation. This is mostly because olive oil is riddled with healthy fat — such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — as well as antioxidants.
For that unprocessed extra virgin olive oil, go with the roasted veggie or soup recipes or low-heat, slow simmer recipes such as Red Lentil Potato Soup, Roasted Eggplant, and Cauliflower Curry, Pea Risotto With Roasted Asparagus, Roasted Tomato Coconut Soup, or this Spicy Maple Roasted Carrots.
Tips and Tricks for Plant Oils
Alright, so now you know the safest oils, and maybe you’ve picked up a few other oils that are part of your reserve stash. Now it’s time to get to cooking with these wonderful ingredients! Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.
Source: Chickpea Fries
Just because a food is fried doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy! It all comes down to the type of food being fried and the oil you’re using. For instance, any oil that has those super unstable PUFAs will be very unhealthy, while those high-heat safe oils can boost the nutritional value of said fried food.
First off, always heat your oil first before tossing the ingredients in the pot! Try to avoid getting that oil to the point of smoking — generally between 300 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit — and choose one of those stellar high-heat oils such as avocado oil.
Source: Quick and Easy Broccoli Stir Fry
Sauteing is one of my favorite ways to cook my veggies! I feel more control over the “cooked-ness” of the veggie, plus I can do a mini-steam by plopping in a bit of water and covering it if I feel some of the veggies need a little softening.
Much like frying, you’ll want to start with a partially hot pan. Begin your sautee session with a smaller amount of oil, such as a tablespoon, as a little goes a long way. Add more as needed depending on the length of time you’ll be sauteeing.
As you’ll generally be using lower heat for a sautee, you can opt for either olive or coconut oil!
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned when it comes to roasting veggies is that less is more when it comes to oils. For a baking sheet of carrots, peppers, and squash, I generally only use one to two tablespoons of coconut oil or olive oil. If you overcoat them, then you won’t necessarily get that crisp or roasted shell on the veggie, plus they can get mushy.
Plus, make sure to use the appropriate oil for your intended goal!
For instance, when you’re trying to get a good crispy outer layer on your veggie, go with coconut or avocado oil, which will heat up quicker. Looking for a simple, soft roasted veggie with maybe a slight touch of golden brown? Opt for that extra virgin olive oil.
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- The Best Plant-Based Oils For Cooking, Baking, and Dressing Making
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