We use cooking oils for frying, baking, stir-fries, salads and marinades, but choosing the right one can be confusing.
Cooking oils are derived from a dizzying array of plant sources, from avocado or canola to peanut or sunflower, and are often labelled with different descriptors such as "light" or "cold-pressed".
Some oils are good options for baking while others are better for frying or drizzling over salad.
And while all cooking oils are a combination of different types of fats (see 'Good' and 'bad' fats), the varying proportions of these fats in an oil make some healthier than others.
So when it comes to choosing a cooking oil, which one should you use, and when?
We use cooking oils in a wide variety of ways. But that doesn't necessarily mean you need to buy one of every type, as some are versatile and multipurpose.
To help you decide which oil(s) you should keep in your pantry, we've summarised the key features of some of the more common oils you'll find on supermarket shelves.
Almond oil is a good source of vitamin E, high in monounsaturated fat and comparatively low in saturated fat, so it's a good heart-friendly choice. It has a strong nutty flavour and aftertaste. It's a low-heat oil, so it's best used to drizzle over vegetables, in salad dressings, or to make mayonnaise.
Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fat, but comparatively low in polyunsaturated fat. It's packed with fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, and also contains B-group vitamins. Avocado oil is green in colour with a mild flavour and pleasant aftertaste. It's a low-heat cooking oil and a great addition to salads, poultry and seafood. But it can be more expensive than other oils.
Avocado oil has a mild flavour and is great with salads.
Canola oil is high in monounsaturated fat, low in saturated fats and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. It's versatile for both low and high-heat cooking, and is light in flavour, allowing the food flavours to dominate. It's also comparatively inexpensive.
Coconut oil has a slight nutty flavour and works well in both savoury and sweet dishes. It's particularly popular in vegan cooking and can replace dairy products to make pastry and creamy desserts. It has a long shelf life, but it's very high in saturated fat.
Grapeseed oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, and a rich source of vitamin E. It's a good multi-purpose oil with a light, pleasant taste that brings out the flavours of the foods being cooked.
Macadamia oil is high in monounsaturated fat but comparatively low in polyunsaturated fat. This relatively expensive oil has a distinct nutty flavour, making it a good base for salad dressings, marinades and for adding flavour to baking recipes and stir-fry dishes.
Mustard oil is widely used in Northern Indian cooking and is a good source of monounsaturated fats. It has a distinctive strong flavour and very nutty aftertaste so you need to be careful when cooking with it so as not to overpower the rest of the dish.
Olive oil is a good source of monounsaturated fats and is a key ingredient in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. It's a versatile oil that's great for cooking, as well as for dressing salads or creating marinades. For the best quality, and highest amounts of antioxidants, look for 'extra virgin' varieties.
Palm oil is commonly used in manufactured and fast foods. Its low-cost production makes it a cheaper option but it has also raised a number of environmental concerns, particularly around deforestation. It's high in saturated fat, at about 47% , making it a less healthy option. Currently there is no obligation to label the presence of palm oil in foods.
Peanut oil works well for frying.
Peanut oil is widely used in Asian cuisine and works well for high temperature cooking, especially for frying and stir-frying. If you're cooking for guests, check no-one has a peanut allergy before using the oil.
Rice bran oil is a clean-tasting versatile oil ideal for all types of cooking including baking, grilling and deep frying. It's a good source of vitamin E, but at about 22%, it's relatively high in saturated fat compared with other popular cooking oils such as olive oil (15%) and canola oil (7%).
Sunflower oil is rich in vitamins E and K, low in saturated fats and is a good source of polyunsaturated fatty acids. It's a versatile oil, suitable for cooking at various temperatures. It's also comparatively good value for money.
Vegetable oil is usually a blend of canola and soybean oil, and is comparatively inexpensive. Both palm oil and coconut oil are sometimes disguised in processed foods behind the catch-all 'vegetable oil' label, so worth noting if you're trying to avoid them.
Who knew cooking oils could be so complicated? Here's an explainer of some of the more common claims and terms that appear on labels.
- Cold-pressed oils aren't extracted using excessive heat. As a result, they generally have a stronger flavour and are higher in antioxidants such as vitamin E and polyphenols.
- All cooking oils are cholesterol-free, as they're derived from plant sources that naturally have no cholesterol.
- Lite/Light/Extra light on Australian oils means the oil is lighter in flavour and/or colour, not lower in kilojoules.
- Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the first pressing of olives. It yields the best-tasting and lowest acidity oil, and therefore comes with a higher price tag. It's ideal for use in salad dressings, drizzling over cooked pasta or char-grilled vegetables.
- The smoke point of an oil refers to the level of heat it can withstand before it begins to smoke, at which point its flavour and nutritional quality can change. Oils with a low smoke point are best used where heat isn't involved, such as for salad dressings and dips. Most cooking oils have smoke points above standard domestic cooking temperatures, however, so are suitable for various cooking functions at home including pan frying (sautéing) on the stove top (around 120°C), deep frying (160–180°C) and oven baking (average 180°C).
Coconut oil is particularly popular in vegan cooking, but it's very high in saturated fat.
Fats are the body's most concentrated source of energy and help protect and insulate your vital organs.
They also allow fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) to be absorbed and provide essential fatty acids, which are important building blocks for the brain, eyes and nervous tissues.
While all fats supply the same amount of energy (1g of fat provides about 37kJ), not all fats are created equal, and a higher consumption of some can be better (or worse) for your health.
So what are the different types?
- Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (which include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) are often referred to as 'heart-healthy' as they can reduce levels of harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood, especially when substituted for less healthy fats such as saturated fat. LDL is considered the 'bad' cholesterol because it contributes to the narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular diseases.
- Saturated fat is the main dietary cause of high cholesterol, raising levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Replacing dietary saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Trans fats behave similarly to saturated fat in that they raise levels of LDL cholesterol, but they tend to also lower levels of the 'good' high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, making them even more damaging. While rarely found in nature, they're formed when liquid unsaturated vegetable oils are partially hydrogenated or 'hardened' during processing so can sometimes be found in commercial ultra processed foods including baked goods, and some oils used for commercial frying.
Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that total fats account for 20–35% of your daily kilojoule intake, with no more than 10% coming from saturated and trans fats.
While all fats supply the same amount of energy… not all fats are created equal, and a higher consumption of some can be better (or worse) for your health
There are a number of dietary choices you can make that can help achieve this, such as avoiding ultra processed foods and fast foods which can be high in saturated and trans fats, and including more nuts and seeds in your diet by adding them to stir-fries and salads, for example.
And when it comes to oils and spreads, you can replace those that contain predominantly saturated fats (such as butter and coconut or palm oil) with options that contain predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (such as olive or sunflower-based oils and spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado).
It's important not to pour leftover cooking oil down the drain, as it can adhere to the walls of pipes and cause blockages.
Some council areas permit very small amounts of cooking oil to be placed in your green (food/garden organics) bin if it's mixed/absorbed with paper towel and food waste to be composted. If that's not the case for you – and certainly for larger amounts – pour cooled oil into a container with a secure lid and dispose of it in the rubbish bin.
Tips for reducing oily waste
- Use less cooking oil where possible. Using non-stick cookware and alternatives to deep frying (e.g. stir-frying, grilling or baking) will reduce your need for oil.
- If you're cooking with a deep fryer, strain the oil after each use and store it in a tightly sealed container in a cool, dark place until the next use. Depending on what you're cooking and whether it's coated, you can reuse the oil multiple times.
- Scrape or wipe oil and grease from utensils and plates into the bin prior to washing with water.