Healthy oil?
August 23, 2004 10:53 AM   Subscribe

What's the healthiest type of cooking oil? I do a lot of faux-Indian / Thai / whatever cooking (think a big wok with lots of turmeric and pepper) and, being on a low cal diet, usually just use water or a drop of olive oil to stir things in. I would like to be able to use more oil, but don't know which, if any, could be considered healthy. Googled, but haven't found a comprehensive non-biased source yet.
posted by signal to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you're cooking in a wok over high heat, you shouldn't use olive oil, and especially not extra virgin olive oil, as it has one of the lowest smoking points going.
posted by kenko at 11:09 AM on August 23, 2004

Don't know how much use this will be, but I'm on Weight Watchers, and our materials tell us to use canola oil over olive oil or peanut oil, or butter/margarine because it has the least amount of points. Less points is usually less calories (or equivalent calories, but less fat and/or more fibre, which doesn't really apply for oil). The downside is that it doesn't taste like anything. If it's just a reducing the sticking thing, then it's probably fine.
posted by Cyrie at 11:13 AM on August 23, 2004

I've consistently seen olive or canola oil as the healthiest oil to use. Used in small amounts each day, olive oil is supposed to have health benefits as it's composed of "healthy fats." I'm a bit of a health nut and I only cook with olive oil, but your YMMV.
posted by Zosia Blue at 11:16 AM on August 23, 2004

There are some nice canola products out now, including canola-based margarine, and canola oil cooking spray.

Note that for a few applications, recommendations may vary--for example, if you want to deep-fry something quickly, like a light, crispy tempura, you want something with a high smoke point that you can get really hot, so that the food cooks quickly and doesn't absorb so much grease. In that case, absorbing just a little peanut oil might be better than getting grease-soaked with an otherwise healthier oil.
posted by gimonca at 11:30 AM on August 23, 2004

I use sesame oil for such things.
posted by ed\26h at 11:39 AM on August 23, 2004

Canola. I've read that sesame oil is good, too.

For a Wok though, peanut is best. Has a higher smoking point and viscosity.
posted by erratic frog at 11:39 AM on August 23, 2004

A tablespoon of sesame oil will go a long way towards improving flavor -- 120 calories split amongst, say, four servings is only 30 calories each. Hardly a deal breaker, if you ask me.
posted by bcwinters at 11:40 AM on August 23, 2004

Mentioning that you are on a diet, coupled with your query concerning healthy oil is a bit of a conundrum. Do you want low calorie or healthy? Because the two qualifiers do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

Low calorie: The best “oil” for your waistline would be to use a fat-free, low calorie cooking spray, such as PAM. I've used this for vegetable sautes, and even used it as a lubricant for roasting vegetables in the oven (asparagus, zucchini, eggplant). If you are very weight conscious, it’s advisable to only use this, as any sort of “real” oil has like 14-20 grams of fat per tablespoon. As far as calories go, I don’t bother counting, but oils are very high in fat.

Healthy: Having ditched the “oil spray”, I do like Zosia Blue, and only use virgin or extra virgin olive oil for cooking everything from eggs in the pan, pastries, and vegetables. I've heard that peanut, vegetable, canola, and sesame oils are all detrimental to your arteries, and those four oils are verboten in my household. Yes, they are more flavorful, but very bad for your veins. For flavor, instead go with spices and herbs.
posted by naxosaxur at 12:06 PM on August 23, 2004

Here's a little 101 rundown [and a little chart] on why oils are even different to begin with. I substitute olive oil for butter in a lot of the frying I do and while there's a difference in taste somewhat, there's a huge difference in cholesterol. However, no oils have cholesterol. What oil you pick will depend on both what you are doing with it [I agree with what everyone said about high smoking points for stir-frying] and what health benefits you might be looking for.

Tasty oils like palm and coconut are not good, less tasty oils like corn and canola are better. Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fat which people think is good for lowering cholesterol. People who eat diets high in canola and flaxseed oil are supposedly helping prevent artheriosclerosis.
posted by jessamyn at 12:11 PM on August 23, 2004

A tablespoon of sesame oil is a lot of flavor - more than you'll want, usually, unless it's a significant part of the dish. It also has a very low smoking point, so it is better to use it sparingly, as a flavoring or on a salad.

If you're cooking Indian food, a little ghee goes a long way and tastes right with the dish. Anyone here know if there's lower cholesterol/bad fat in clarified butter, since the milk solids are removed?
posted by mimi at 12:32 PM on August 23, 2004

Ghee. I'd go for organic sesame oil as well. Plus it's great for your skin!
posted by oh posey at 12:45 PM on August 23, 2004

But the whole POINT is: If you use an oil with a HIGHER smoking point and viscosity, you will use less oil.

Another tip: Heat the Wok FIRST, then add the oil. Then your food will not soak in the oil and you'll eat less oil.

posted by erratic frog at 12:49 PM on August 23, 2004

Sorry I thought grapeseed oil had been mentioned already.
posted by oh posey at 12:50 PM on August 23, 2004

Ghee for shallow frying certain things, and groundnut/peanut oil for deep frying, probably not the healthiest, but so so tasty.
posted by riffola at 1:03 PM on August 23, 2004

Why thank you erratic frog. :)

I do a lot of faux-Indian / Thai / whatever cooking

Well, I'm an Indian who does a lot of Thai cooking for a living. :)

If you're thinking of stir-frying, do as the Chinese do - use peanut (groundnut) oil. It's got a very high burning point, a pleasant unobtrusive flavour, and is the dude for the job.

Indians today use sunflower oil instead of the ghee that's more traditional in North-Indian cooking. (Bengalis use mustard oil; South-Indians use coconut oil... there's a lot of diversity in "Indian" cooking.)

As for the other choices, here's the lowdown:

Olive oil: Nice for sauteing and pan-frying, but not really for stir-frying. Plus it has a distinct flavour. It's very healthy though.

Extra-virgin olive oil: Use it only for salad dressings and over pasta. Not really suited for *frying*.

Sesame oil: You're kidding me. Never use as a cooking oil. Chinese will stir it in at the last stage to add flavour to food. It has a VERY strong flavour, so add it in units of 1/4 teaspoon and adjust. Two tablespoons, as someone suggested, will give you an inedible mess unless you're cooking for 20 people. ;)

Sunflower and safflower oil: Alternative, healthy choices to peanut oil. They too don't have a very strong flavour, so they work for stir-frying. Don't have as high a burning point as peanut oil, however.

Want to know which oil is high in saturated fat and hence dangerous? Just refrigerate a small bit for a few hours. If it has solidified, it's bad for you. Simple, eh?
posted by madman at 1:40 PM on August 23, 2004 [1 favorite]

Sorry I thought grapeseed oil had been mentioned already.

That's cause you were remembering that Canola is from Rapeseed.

As far as Canola goes, try to find organic, because it's one of the biggest GE crops around, and you'll almost certainly be guzzling GMOs if it doesn't specify otherwise.
posted by soyjoy at 2:04 PM on August 23, 2004

Madman: Oh! Geez, now I am embarrassed! I MEANT to type SUNFLOWER and typed sesame!

*Please ignore the sesame oil from me up there!*

I *do* use spicy sesame oil in dressings though. :)

I have a nifty spicy dressing recipe if anyone wants it.
posted by erratic frog at 2:14 PM on August 23, 2004

Sesame oil: You're kidding me. Never use as a cooking oil.

There are different types of sesame oil - Unrefined Sesame Oil is what I use for stir frying, it's perfect. I've no idea how healthy it is though.
posted by chill at 2:18 PM on August 23, 2004

Response by poster: Lots of great answers. Thanks all.
What about walnut and hazelnut oils?
posted by signal at 2:22 PM on August 23, 2004

Aren't walnut and hazelnut oils mad expensive, and likely to turn bitter easily?

And is ghee really healthy? Isn't it just clarified butter by another name? (If I'm wrong about this please to excuse my ignorance.)
posted by kenko at 2:29 PM on August 23, 2004

Ghee is bad for you.
posted by oh posey at 2:37 PM on August 23, 2004

ghee = clarified butter
One word for Asian dishes, one for European, but the same stuff.

Yes, walnut and hazelnut are expensive and volatile. They are also strongly flavored. Best to leave them for an interesting salad.
posted by mimi at 2:42 PM on August 23, 2004

I use an unrefined, undeodorized sunflower oil for a similar style (altho' mine tends a bit further east) with a hint of unrefined sesame oil.

The trick to getting good flavour is to use the best ingredients you can. Freshest local produce where possible & the best unrefined spices & flavourings e.g. a good tamari or shoyu will beat the pants off yer average soy sauce.
posted by i_cola at 2:46 PM on August 23, 2004

I rescind my last statement about Ghee; it != clarified butter.

Oh Posey, I will resist the impulse to point out that all food is bad for you, but only because Signal asked about "healthy" foods.

/me goes back to eating her stick of butter
posted by mimi at 2:46 PM on August 23, 2004

Oh I'm pretty sure it's all toxic. :) I was simply giving a response to Kenko's - And is ghee really healthy? - since I assumed he had not followed the link I gave earlier which explained one expert's opinion regarding ghee. I just need to be more clear! For example I had no clue canola oil comes from something called rapeseed!
posted by oh posey at 2:57 PM on August 23, 2004

The short list of facts to know:
  1. Extra virgin olive oil is very, very good for you but it burns easily. (it is a monounsaturated fat, which is much better than polyunsaturated, and contains many other beneficial compounds that refined olive oil does not)
  2. Regular/refined/golden olive oil is still monounsaturated and still good for you and is suitable for low to medium heat cooking.
  3. Eating a burnt oil is always very bad for you! (they also taste bad!) Unrefined, "natural" oils burn easily. Don't listen to the know-nothing hippies with their knee-jerk, "less processing is always better" crap. Refining does remove naturally occurring benefical compounds from oils, but these same chemicals burn and become toxins at relatively low temperatures. Refined/processed oils are more heat resistant and therefore healthier to cook with at higher temperatures.
What that means:
  • Use extra virgin olive oil whenever possible, and other unrefined oils, as flavor appropriate, in low heat situations like salad dressings, over pasta, or to finish a dish after it's cooked.
  • Never cook above low heat with extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, or other unrefined oils including canola, flaxseed or sunflower oil.
  • When flavor or heat make extra virgin unsuitable substitute refined "golden" or "extra-light" olive oil for temps up to around 375 degrees F.
  • For very high temperature cooking (searing, stir frying) use an oil with a very high smoke point. Refined grapeseed and avocado oils are best.
Madeline Kamman's "The New Making of a Cook" is an unbeatable resource on how to make fantastic food with very thorough, scientific explainations of the chemistry of foods and cooking. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in eating well.
posted by bradhill at 3:44 PM on August 23, 2004

The preferred oils are rich in omega 3 as compared to omega 6.

All oils have about the same caloric value so all provide about as much metabolic energy.

Except perhaps Coconut oil... But, but... everyone knows Tropical oils are way bad for you, right? Maybe not...

The research about coconut oil being bad for you is bunk. The research (it all points back to one study in the early 80s) was sponsored by the soybean growers association. Its claims for Trop oils being unhealthy for your heart are just not supported.

Turns out coconut oil is rich in MCT (medium chain tryglycerides). MCTs are famous for converting easily into enrgy, rathe than fat and are now quite coveted by athletes on carful diets.

Alas, due to low commercial demand, most coconut oil you'd find are in ethnic markets and is crap quality though. You should look for the coconut oil sold in health food stores that are labelled organic. Coconut oil also has the longest shelf life of all cocnut oils, 2 years easily without any oxidation or othr time/storage nasties. Like all oils though, its still best to keep them sealed, without a lot of air in the container, and not in contact with light.

It also has a high smokepoint but it does impart a slight coconutty flavor to foods though. And its pricey stuff again owing to the low demand for it in the US.

Quite affordable and quite healthy for you are all nut oils (as opposed to seed oils) especially the aforementioned grapeseed oil and also walnut oil. Olive oil, having benefited from extensive publicity for its healthy qualities is quite pricey. Organic, cold pressed walnut and grapeseed oil are often as much as half the cost. They both are quite tasty on Salads.

Walnut oil is especially good for you as it combines the heart healthy high omega 3 content with lots of Lignan, otherwise only found in high amounts in flax seed oil, which is notoriously unstable and breaks down rapidly into nasty oxidative byproducts if not refrigerated continuosly after the flax seed is crushed.

I myself use coconut oil for baking, (instead of butter), and alternate between olive, walnut and grapeseed oil. I pass on canola oil, since most all is GMO and different from the rapeseeds the dietary research based its work upon.

Lastly, avoid at all costs any and all corn oil and the products containing same. Corn oil is just about as bad for you nutritionally as any cooking oil can be. Low in omega 3s, high in omega 6 and used way too much in commercial products thanks to its agro-subsidy rendered low cost.

Regrettably, Corn Oil is a staple in Indian cooking, which is often otherwise a very healthy cuisine. Indian cooking doesn't suffer at all when you substitute healthier oils in recipes, I've found.

Hope that helps and sorry to be so late to this askme post.
posted by Fupped Duck at 3:47 PM on August 23, 2004

More about the Coconut Oil Controversy
posted by Fupped Duck at 4:10 PM on August 23, 2004

Wok Cooking and Lung Cancer Risk
Cooking with a wok may contribute to lung cancer risk, depending on the cooking conditions and the type of oil used. ...Chinese women have one of the highest incidences of lung cancer in the world, but that tobacco smoking does not appear to be responsible. Previous epidemiologic studies have implicated indoor air pollutants, including volatile compounds in the vapors from cooking woks.
There's more where that came from. Poke around in Google.
posted by NortonDC at 4:34 PM on August 23, 2004

Use extra virgin olive oil whenever possible, and other unrefined oils, as flavor appropriate, in low heat situations like salad dressings, over pasta, or to finish a dish after it's cooked.

Never cook above low heat with extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, or other unrefined oils including canola, flaxseed or sunflower oil.

I'll just note that Mario Batali uses extra virgin olive oil even with high heat so there are exceptions to the rule.
posted by gyc at 4:38 PM on August 23, 2004

Regrettably, Corn Oil is a staple in Indian cooking

It is? News to me. Not over here, it's not.

Anyway, signal, if you're trying to be on a low-cal diet, try seafood. If it's very fresh, steaming is a great way. Since you cook Thai, make a marinade of shallots, green chillies, lemon grass, galangal, fish sauce, and a twist of lime juice and let the fish sit for a couple of hours. Steam this. Tastes great and doesn't have *any* fat in it.

I once had a customer who was a heart patient and couldn't have a drop of oil in his food. We made him a four course meal, all using seafood. :)

Also try my laab recipe.
posted by madman at 5:08 PM on August 23, 2004

Unless you use salmon or some other fatty fish.
posted by kenko at 5:23 PM on August 23, 2004

I don't recommend cooking for others with coconut oil, simply because I've known several people allergic to it.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:31 PM on August 23, 2004

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