What are the best fats or oils to use for cooking?
First and foremost let me remind you that there are a few different reasons why you will want to avoid certain fats and oils for cooking, mainly seed oils.
1. Saturated fats are more stable than unsaturated fats.
Quite literally, the chemical structure of saturated fats will not be easily damaged by things that will easily damage (or oxidize) unsaturated fats, namely: heat, light and air.
Ever wonder why your high-quality olive oils are sold in a dark green glass or other opaque container? It's to keep light from damaging the oil. Ever wonder why coconut oil doesn't go “off” or smell rancid from sitting out on the counter without a lid on it but a vegetable oil like corn or soybean oil will? Air oxidizes those oils and makes them rancid. That is, damaged beyond the point that they are already just from the point of bottling.
What separates the saturated fats from the unsaturated fats is the presence of a hydrogen bond at every instance of a carbon in the chemical structure of the fat. When there is a double bond in the chain of carbons, it creates a more unstable structure, which you can see when a fat is liquid at room temperature: the group of unstable fats together form a liquid versus the group of stable fats together which form a solid or semi-solid.
2. Seed oils are extremely high in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) at varying ratios, all of which are prone to oxidation, PUFAs most significantly.
You wouldn't cook with fish oil, would you? Why would you want to cook with other oils that are very high in PUFAs? Even beyond PUFAs, MUFAs are pretty easy to damage as well (olive oil is very high in MUFAs).
3. BEWARE: Many refined seed oils are marketed as having a high smoke point, therefore making them “ideal” choices for cooking.
That's not really the whole story. A higher smoke point is valid only if the fat or oil is fairly stable to begin with, and it may be useful in determining between two fats which is more ideal to use.
That said, simply using the smoke point as a reason why you choose a cooking oil is an ineffective tool and will leave you with an already rancid oil on your hands (most likely, due to how it was initially processed – see links above and the video below on how canola oil is made below) and one that you'll possibly damage further with the high heat of your skillet.
So, which fats are safe and recommended for cooking?
I have updated the Ranking of Common Cooking Fats (PDF) chart—which you can grab for *free* by clicking the image. I added more information and more fats and oils to it. What you can do is use the chart as a tool and see where the fat or oil you find may fall within the chart based on it's fatty acid composition as well as it's smoke point using resources like the books “Know Your Fats” and “Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill” as well as websites like http://wikipedia.com/ or others listing fatty acid composition of cooking fats/oils as a resource.
It's safe to assume, however, that most naturally occurring saturated fats are safe to cook with, while most unsaturated fats (called oils because they are liquid at ambient room temperature) are unsafe to cook with and are most ideal for cold uses if appropriate for consumption at all.
Remember that man made trans-fats are never healthy to eat: Crisco, Earth Balance, Smart Balance, Benecol, Margarine, Country Crock, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and the new one claiming to be a coconut product but it actually contains soybean oil… yeah, those are all a “never.”
Before you post a comment asking about a type fat or oil that is not listed… USE THE RANKING SYSTEM to figure out where it would fall.
Those with the highest percentage of saturated fatty acids (SFAs) and with the highest smoke point rank at the top while those with the highest percentage of PUFAs and lowest smoke point at the bottom. Then, make the call for yourself whether you want to 1- cook with it, 2- use it cold- or 3- avoid it entirely.
Below are my favorite brands and sources of fats and oils. I suggest using a variety and even better, if you can use the fat rendered from the same animal you are cooking with, you will enjoy a maximum flavor profile!
- Artisana & Nutiva brands
duck fat, lard, and tallow
- Kerrygold butter
Trader Joe’s, Costco, Whole Foods Market, local grocers
- Pure Indian foods Ghee
- Smjor Butter
- Tropical Traditions
Coconut oil (I recommend Green Label for the best taste)
- Wilderness Family Naturals
Organic coconut oils, natural red palm oil, sesame seed oil, olive oil, Mary’s Sauté Oil (named after Mary enig, author of Know Your Fats: blend of virgin coconut oil, extra-virgin olive oil, and unrefined sesame seed oil)
- US Wellness Meats
duck fat, lard, and beef and lamb tallow
More resources on healthy versus unhealthy fats:
- Fats: Which to Eat & Which to Ditch (blog post) & Fats: Which to Eat & Which to Ditch (FREE PDF guide)
- 5 fats you should be cooking with – but may not be (Chris Kresser)
- Fats and Oils (Dr. Kurt Harris)
How Virgin Coconut Oil is Made:
How Canola Oil is Made: