When it comes to selecting oils and fats for cooking, there are plenty of options to choose from. And while the flavor an oil imparts on a dish plays an important role in what you opt for, your choice should be based on a lot more than that.
Cooking at High Heat
Firstly, you need to consider what oils stand up to high heat. When cooking at high temperatures you want to use oils that are stable and don't oxidize or go rancid easily. Oils that oxidize, react with oxygen to form free radicals and harmful compounds - toxic substances you certainly don't want to be consuming.
So what are the safest, healthiest oils and fats you can use while cooking?
Coconut oil is your best choice when it comes to high heat cooking - and given its numerous benefits, this is certainly an oil you'll want to use time and time again (learn more about its health benefits here). As it stands up to high heat, it can be used for sautéing, roasting, frying, baking, and grilling. It is also rich in healthy saturated fats, fat-soluble vitamins, antioxidants and valuable compounds for weight loss. At room temperature, the oil is semi-solid, meaning that it can last for months and years, without going rancid.
Derived from the fruit of oil palms, palm oil consists mostly of saturated fats, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fats - making it a good choice for cooking. It is pretty nutritious and is especially rich in Vitamin E. There is one main concern which should be taken into consideration when using palm oil, though. Growing these trees mean less environment available for Orangutans, which are an endangered species.
It may have been demonized in the past, due to its saturated content, but real butter (not processed margarine) is actually quite nutritious. It is a good source of vitamins A, E and K. It is also rich in fatty acids - Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which has been shown to lower body fat percentage, and Butyrate, which according to studies, has been shown to fight inflammation and improve gut health. The only drawback to using butter is its tendency to get burned when cooked at high heat. So, if opting for butter, be sure to keep the fire down and watch for smoke. Alternatively, you can use ghee (purified butter) - you'll get the same (or at least, extremely similar) flavor, without the burn.
When cooking at very high temperatures, this is a very stable oil to use. It can be used in searing, roasting, and frying, and can stand up to temperatures as high as 520°F. Avocado oil contains a high concentration of monounsaturated fats (good and healthy fats - a necessary requirement in a healthy diet), potassium and vitamins A, E, and D. If you're new to avocado oil and are a little unsure about its taste, use it to sauté vegetables first.
One of the main reasons why animal fat has been shunned in the past is due to its saturated fat content and high serum cholesterol levels. The tides, however, are slowly changing. Fear of saturated fat is beginning to diminish as more studies are showing that such foods are not the culprit for heart disease or our obesity epidemic. So long as they are consumed wisely and moderately, animal fats like lard or tallow are great for high heat cooking and are not considered to be an unhealthy option if sourced from animals consuming a natural diet (grass-fed), living in a natural environment.
Cooking with olive oil has been a pretty debatable topic in recent years. There's no denying that olive oil has numerous health benefits and is an exceptional heart-healthy oil. It has been shown to raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower the amount of oxidizes LDL cholesterol. Most sources, however, indicate that olive oil can stand up to heats of 320°F - and should preferably be used as a dressing. Though there are some olive oils on the market (virgin and refined) that are more suitable for high-heat cooking (they can stand up to temperatures as high as 400°F) but these oils are inferior in nutritive properties. So, if opting for a low-quality olive oil, make sure it is either expeller or cold pressed.
Cooking with Seed Oils
Seed oils are often refined with chemicals, bleaches, and deodorizers which are generally used in high-heat commercial cooking due to their ability to withstand high temperatures and their cheap prices. Because oils like soybean, canola, corn, safflower, grapeseed and vegetable oils are extracted from tiny seeds, they are often refined, using many chemical extractions.
For your ultimate guide to cooking oil, this chart explains it all: