Choosing and Using Cooking Oils: What To Use and When

The best cooking oils contain healthier fats, and EVOO wins best in show
Cooking oil being poured.

Cooking with oils is a big part of many recipes and adds flavor to your dishes. But navigating which oils are best — or worst — for your health and your recipe can be a challenge. There are a lot of options, after all.  

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Confused about which oils are healthy and which aren’t? Which to use for searing vs. stir-frying, baking vs. sautéing?  

You’re not alone! 

Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, helps break it all down by explaining how to choose the best oil to get the right taste and the most benefits for your health.  

Choosing healthier cooking oils 

Before we start, it’s helpful to understand what oil is and what makes one oil healthier than another.  

You may know that oil is made up of fat. And while many diets suggest cutting down on fats (rightfully), the truth is that some fats are better for you than others. This means that the kinds of fats in your oil are what make one healthier than another. 

Unhealthy fats  

These are the fats to look out for: 

  • Saturated fats, which are commonly found in butter, whole milk, yogurt, cheese, lard, bacon fat, fatty cuts of red meat, the skin of poultry, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oils.
  • Trans fats, which should be eliminated from a healthy diet. They’re commonly found in packaged and processed foods. The words “partially hydrogenized oils” are a red flag for these fats. 

“Unhealthy fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, leaving you at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke,” Zumpano explains. 

Healthy fats 

Other fats are healthier. They lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. But Zumpano reminds us that too much of any fat isn’t good for your health, so even these better-for-you fats shouldn’t be consumed excessively. 

  • Monounsaturated fats are commonly found in foods like olives, avocados and nuts (and their associated cooking oils). 
  • Polyunsaturated fats are also commonly referred to as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. You’ll find them in oily fish, like salmon, herring, tuna and mackerel, as well as walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds.  

Choosing the best cooking oils 

The best heart-healthy cooking oils are ones that are lower in saturated fats. But it doesn’t end there. 

“When you’re choosing an oil for cooking or baking, you want to think about its health implications, of course, but also the way the oil reacts to heat,” Zumpano notes. “Some oils are better suited for higher heats, some for lower heat, and some shouldn’t be heated at all.”  

Advertising Policy

The difference is the smoke point. That’s the temperature that causes oil to start smoking, which produces toxic fumes and free radicals. If your oil starts smoking in your pan, you should toss it out and start again to avoid unhealthy byproducts. 

Oils with higher smoke points can be used at higher heats. Generally, the more refined the oil, the higher the smoke point.  

Different oils also can bring different flavors to your meal. That’s a two-edged sword. The right flavors enhance your meal or, in some cases, make for an inedible disaster. (We’ve all been there!)   

Best oils for searing, browning and deep frying 

These cooking oils have a very high smoke point, meaning they can take a lot of heat before they start smoking. That makes them well-suited to cooking at higher temperatures.  

Oil Saturated fat content What to know 
Almond 7% Has a distinctive nutty flavor. 
Hazelnut 7% Brings a bold, strong flavor. 
Sunflower 14% High-oleic versions are higher in healthy monounsaturated fat. 
“Light” or refined olive oil 14% “Light” refers to color. The more refined the olive oil, the better its use as an all-purpose cooking oil. 
Avocado 17% Known for its sweet aroma. 
Palm 52% Not recommended as a healthy cooking choice. 

Remember that just because you use a healthier oil doesn’t make cooking methods like deep frying or pan frying automatically “healthy.” Zumpano says that frying uses a lot of oil, which can negate the healthy qualities of any oil. For a healthier alternative to deep frying, consider air frying

Best oils for baking, oven cooking and stir-frying 

These cooking oils have a medium-high smoke point, making them good choices for use in the oven or in a stir-fry. 

Oil Saturated fat content What to know 
Canola 7% High omega-6 fatty acids, which can be unhealthy when consumed in excess. Low in the healthy omega-3 fatty acid. 
Grapeseed 10% High omega-6 fatty acids, which can be unhealthy when consumed in excess.
Macadamia nut 13% Known for having a bold flavor. 
Light virgin olive oil 14% A top-choice oil. 
Peanut 18% Delicious in stir-fry. 

Best oils for light sautéing, sauces and low-heat baking 

These cooking oils have a medium smoke point, making them good choices for dishes that don’t require high heat.  

Oil Saturated fat content What to know 
Hemp 10% Good source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Keep refrigerated. 
Corn 13% High omega-6 fatty acids, which can be unhealthy when consumed in excess.
Pumpkin seed 15% Contains alpha-linolenic acid, a form of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Sesame 15% Has a rich, nutty flavor. Keep refrigerated. 
Soybean 15% High omega-6 fatty acids, which can be unhealthy when consumed in excess. 
Virgin coconut 92% Also contains lauric acid, which raises good and bad cholesterol levels. Use in moderation. 

Best oils for dressings, dips and marinades 

These oils shouldn’t be used for cooking, but are great used in mixes.   

Oil Saturated fat content What to know 
Flaxseed 7% Excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid, a form of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. 
Walnut 9% Contains alpha-linolenic acid, a form of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. 
Wheat germ 17% High omega-6 fatty acids, which can be unhealthy when consumed in excess. Keep refrigerated. 

Other healthy and delicious choices for no-heat recipes are toasted sesame oil and extra-virgin olive oil.  

Olive oil is the healthiest go-to 

Not everyone has the cooking acumen (or cupboard space!) to keep an inventory of various oils on hand, of course. Add to that the fact that storing oils for long periods of time can ruin their health benefits, and Zumpano says you’re usually best off sticking to just a few kinds of oil in small amounts.

Advertising Policy

Store them in a cool, dark and dry place, and be sure to replace any that smell bitter or “off.” Check the best-by date because oils should be used within 30 to 60 days after opening. 

If you’re looking to narrow your oils and pick the healthiest choices for a range of uses, Zumpano recommends extra-virgin olive oil as best in show. 

“Olive oil has been proven to lower LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise HDL (good cholesterol) levels when it’s used to replace saturated fat, such as butter,” she adds.  

It also contains beta-carotene and vitamins A, E, D and K, plus many more healthful nutrients that have beneficial effects on almost every bodily function. 

Extra-virgin olive oil (also known as EVOO) has the lowest oxidation rate of any cooking oil, too. Translation: It’s less prone to promoting free radicals — chemicals that are highly reactive and can damage cells. Oxidative stress caused by free radicals can lead to cancer and other diseases. Extra-virgin olive oil also is an excellent source of antioxidants, which fight off free radicals to protect cells from the damaging effects of oxidative stress. 

And if you need another reason to consider extra-virgin olive oil, it also contains hydroxytyrosol, an organic compound with anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal properties.  

Tips to keep your consumption low 

Remember: All oils are fats and just because some are better for you, doesn’t mean you should drop your guard completely. At 9 calories per gram, fats are far more calorie-dense than carbohydrates or protein — which have 4 calories per gram. Keep your fat intake between 25% and 35% of your total daily calories.  

You’ll get more benefits from extra-virgin olive oil and other healthy choices by using them for a quick sauté, rather than, say, dunking a slice of ciabatta in oil as an appetizer. 

“When it comes to cooking oil, more quality and less quantity,” Zumpano advises. Some studies have shown benefits to consuming up to 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil per day, but that would take the place of all other oils and added fats. Quality is key.” 

Advertising Policy