Are you looking for a way to elevate your vegan meals? Look no further than cooking with oil! Caramelized onions, golden-brown panko-crusted tofu, and other delicious dishes can be made possible with the right oil. But not all oils are created equal, and some are healthier than others. So, which oils are the best for vegan cooking?
First things first, is oil ever healthy? Absolutely! fat is a necessary nutrient that provides the body with energy and helps maintain its systems. Oils also help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and provide essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce on its own. However, not all oils are created equal. The healthiest oils are those that are unsaturated and minimally processed, providing natural sources of omega-3 and monounsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants.
Saturated fats and trans fats, found in certain meats, dairy products, and processed foods, should be avoided or limited. Vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, vegetable oil, and canola oil are high in omega-6 fatty acids and can increase the risk of chronic health conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to cooking, oils have a smoke point, which is the minimum temperature at which they switch from shimmering to smoking. Cooking with oil beyond its smoke point can break down the oil's natural nutrients and cause free radicals to develop, which contributes to inflammation.
The healthiest oils for vegan diets include avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseed oil, sesame oil, and walnut oil. Avocado oil has a very high smoke point, making it suitable for all kinds of cooking. It has a neutral flavor and is made up of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and low in saturated fats. Extra virgin olive oil is less processed compared to other olive oils and is a versatile oil with a rich flavor. It's made up of monounsaturated fats, vitamins E and K, oleic acid, and the antioxidant oleocanthal, both of which fight inflammation. Flaxseed oil is high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid, making it an excellent choice for vegans who don't consume fish. Sesame oil is rich in antioxidants and has a nutty flavor that's perfect for stir-fries, dressings, and marinades. Walnut oil is another excellent source of ALA and has a rich, nutty flavor that's perfect for salads and drizzling over cooked vegetables.
While oil can be healthy, it's essential to consume it in moderation, as too much can lead to weight gain and other health problems. The Mediterranean diet, which limits fat to no more than 25-30% of calories, is an excellent example of how to incorporate healthy oils into your diet. Remember, it's always better to get your nutrients from whole, unprocessed foods than from highly processed ones.
- Avocado oil
Avocado oil is obtained from the pulp of the fruit using mechanical extraction and there are two types: refined and unrefined, or cold-pressed. Refined avocado oil has a very high smoke point, making it suitable for all kinds of cooking. It is very neutral in flavor, so it's good for a wide range of culinary uses in instances where you don't want to taste the oil.
“Avocado oil has a fatty acid composition that is very similar to olive oil's fatty acid composition,” explains Rouse. “The majority of avocado oil is made up of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids and is low in saturated fats.”
Smoke point: 480 degrees
Good for: Sautéing, roasting, baking, stir-frying, shallow- and deep-frying
- Extra virgin olive oil
Made popular by celebrity cook and author Rachael Ray, extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO, if you will) is cold-pressed, meaning that it's made from olives that have been crushed by mechanical means. It's less processed compared to its cousins, virgin olive oil and refined olive oil, and is considered a healthy, versatile oil with a rich flavor. EVOO is made up of 73 percent monounsaturated fats as well as small amounts of vitamins E and K. It also contains oleic acid and the antioxidant oleocanthal, both of which are known to fight inflammation.
You've likely heard that you shouldn't use EVOO for high-temperature cooking but, that's a bit of a myth. Deep-frying occurs between 350 to 375 degrees which is well within EVOO's smoke point. In fact, studies have shown that EVOO is stable at high temperatures. So, feel free to fry in it! Just keep in mind that you'll notice the olive oil's flavor in the foods that have been cooked in it. If you prefer something more neutral, go with avocado oil or canola oil.
Smoke point: 325 to 410 degrees
Good for: Sautéing, stir-frying, roasting, baking, shallow- and deep-frying, finishing
- Cold-pressed walnut oil
Walnut oil is extracted from whole walnuts and it has a nutty, delicate taste that adds flavor to food. It's rich in unsaturated fats, including an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which contains anti-inflammatory properties and may promote healthy skin. It also contains the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid (LA), the main fatty acid found in the outermost layer of the skin. Studies suggest that walnut oil may help lower blood pressure, thanks to its high levels of ALA, LA, and polyphenols.
Smoke point: 320 degrees
Good for: Salad dressing, finishing, drizzling
- Canola oil
Similar to extra virgin olive oil, canola oil is mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with very little saturated fat. “The difference between the two fatty acid profiles is that canola oil contains a higher level of polyunsaturated fatty acids and is the only oil that has a significant omega-3 fatty acid content,” says Rouse. So, it can help manage inflammation.
Canola oil is extracted from an edible version of the rapeseed plant that was developed by scientists in Canada. (Its name is a combination of “Canada” and the Latin word for oil, “oleum.”) Although it is highly processed, its low saturated fat content makes it one of the healthier oils, so long as it is used in moderation. It's also one of the most readily available, affordable healthy oils for high-temperature cooking.
Smoke point: 400 degrees
Good for: Sautéing, roasting, baking, stir-frying, and frying
- Sesame oil
A staple in many East Asian cuisines, there are two kinds of sesame oils that you'll find in stores: light sesame oil and toasted. It's easy to tell them apart. The former is light in color and has a neutral flavor while the latter is darker and has a nutty flavor and aroma. Here, we're referring to light sesame oil, which has a higher smoke point and is suited for all kinds of roles in the kitchen. As far as health benefits go, sesame oil is rich in polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids, contains anti-inflammatory properties, and it contains the antioxidants sesamin and sesamolin.
Using toasted sesame oil for all-purpose cooking will result in burnt-tasting food, but don't count out using it in moderation. Its robust flavor is used to season food, such as soup, once it's done cooking. It can also be used to make homemade dressing.
Smoke point: 410 degrees
Good for: Sautéing, roasting, baking, stir-frying, shallow- and deep-frying
What about coconut oil?
About coconut oil … The unrefined variety has a high smoke point of 400 degrees while the unrefined, coconut-tasting one starts smoking at 350 degrees, but you may have noticed that it's not on this list.
That is because, despite its claims to fame as a health-food star, coconut oil is mostly made up of 80 to 90 percent saturated fat, which is why it's solid at room temperature. Saturated fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease as it may raise LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, so they should be limited. The American Heart Association even recommends replacing saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil, with unsaturated fats. If you use coconut oil, do so in moderation, and don't make it your go-to oil for healthy cooking.