Chef Gerard ViveritoBy Chef Gerard Viverito

Back in the 80s, the only cooking oil in home pantries was probably all-purpose vegetable oil (the exact vegetable a mystery). Today’s home cooks have many healthy cooking oil options, but it can be confusing trying to learn when to use them. If you’ve ever heated oil to the point where it starts to smoke, then you have exceeded its smoke point. Once it gets too hot, the oil just isn’t fit for consumption. Some oils can handle high heat better than others.

What’s the big deal about a little smoke? It’s not just the annoying high-pitched beep of your smoke detector going off. When an oil is heated beyond its smoke point, its molecular structure begins breaking down. It may even form trans fats. The oil may lose its nutritional value and give your food a bitter or burnt taste. The smoke from overheated oils isn’t even healthy to inhale. Once it starts smoking, the oil really shouldn’t be consumed.

All oils have a smoke point, so match your oils with your cooking methods. Oils with lower smoke points, such as olive oil and walnut oil, are ideal for such things as salad dressings. For high heat, Malaysian palm oil is the most versatile. It has one of the highest smoke points among cooking oils and doesn’t have a strong flavor. It can be used in everything from appetizers to desserts.

The everyday healthy oils
You need healthy fats in your diet to help fill you up, and help your body absorb fat-soluble nutrients including vitamins E and K. (Fat-free foods often get their flavor from added salt and sugar.) Choosing the right oils matters. Some have more nutrients than others.

Each of these healthy oils should earn front-row placement in your pantry.

  1. Olive oil. Loaded with monounsaturated fat, this heart- and skin-healthy oil is great for salad dressings and drizzling over breads. Avoid using it for high-temperature applications. Olive oil starts to degrade before it hits 400 degrees.
  2. Butter. Have you heard you should avoid saturated fat? It’s a myth! There’s no need to avoid this tasty fat. Butter is fine to use in moderation for adding flavor to veggies or potatoes. Don’t heat it beyond 350 degrees.
  3. Malaysian palm oil. This healthy tropical oil pairs well with clean eating because it is non-GMO and cholesterol neutral. It is earning a reputation as a healthy replacement for oils filled with harmful trans fats. Palm oil tolerates heat up to 450 degrees, so it’s an ideal all-purpose cooking oil. All palm oil isn’t the same though. Always buy sustainable palm oil. Malaysia is making that easier by instituting its own Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification program, which will be fully in effective by the end of 2019.
  4. Coconut oil. This tropical oil is filled with medium chain fatty acids (also found in grass-fed butter and palm oil) that are easily used as body fuel, which may help you manage your weight. Try it for baking. It’s naturally sweet, adds great flavor and can tolerate temperatures up to 350 degrees.

The special occasion oils
High price tags and limited uses give these oils second-tier status.

  1. Avocado oil. This oil is extracted from the fruit’s flesh in a similar manner to olive and palm oil, leading to an oil rich in nutrients. When you’re using the broiler, you can turn to avocado oil. It tolerates heat up to 500 degrees.
  2. Macadamia nut oil. You may think of this oil as a beauty aid, but it’s also good for your health. Many health experts say too many omega-6s in our Western diet are causing inflammation. Macadamia nut oil contains a more suitable 1:1 ration of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Its sweet and buttery taste makes it great on salads.
  3. Flaxseed oil. This oil is filled with nutritious, heart-healthy omega-3. Unfortunately, its flavor is unappealing to some people. It begins breaking down at just 225 degrees, so flaxseed oil can’t be exposed to heat. You can still reap its health benefits by sneaking a teaspoon into your next smoothie.
  • Sunflower oil. Skin-, brain- and heart-healthy vitamin E tocotrienols are in this oil. But because it’s also high in inflammatory compounds, it’s not a great option for cooking. Instead, rub some on your cuticles or use it to smooth your hair. For cooking, stick with Malaysian certified sustainable palm oil. It is nature’s richest source for healthy tocotrienols.
  • Oils with GMOs
    If avoiding genetically modified foods is important to you, keep these oils out of your pantry. More than 90 percent of these crops are grown with genetically modified seeds.

    • Soybean oil
    • Canola oil
    • Corn oil
    • Cottonseed oil

    Knowing what cooking oil to use, and when, can be overwhelming. Yes some of these healthy oils may be a little bit more money. But you use less of them, so technically they wind up being about the same cost. They generally have a better flavor profile, a richer mouth feel and more nutrients. Keep this list handy and you’ll always know what oils deserve blue-ribbon treatment and which should stay out of your cooking rotation.

    Chef Gerard Viverito is a culinary instructor as the Director of Culinary Education for Passionfish, a NGO non-profit organization dedicated to educating people around the globe on the issue of sustainability in the seas. [] He is also operator of Saveur Fine Catering, a company whose beliefs and products center on local, sustainable and organic foods. Chef Viverito’s pantry is loaded with items commonly overlooked in the supermarkets, yet he has a thorough understanding of them and a passion to teach others how to cook more healthfully.