Cooking with Fats and Oils: A Guide

9 min Article Healthy Eating
A guide to all we need to know about cooking fats and oils and how they contribute to health and nutrition
Cooking with Fats and Oils: A Guide

For chefs, home cooks, and bakers, fats and oils are beloved ingredients, adding flavor, richness, and texture to food. From Julia Child saying, “With enough butter, anything’s good,” to the more recent controversial act of Nigella Lawson’s buttering her toast twice, fats are famous for starting culinary and nutritional arguments.

Bombay-based surgeons Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write in their book Gastronama: The Indian Guide to Eating Right, “There are two puzzling conundrums in the kitchen: fat and love.” Especially in the Indian kitchen where, they jibe, it’s ghee and not oil or butter that is considered a measure of love, referring to Indian matrons dishing “dollops of ghee” on the plates of their children and family as a show of affection.

Like most things, fats and oils are bad in excess and can lead to cholesterol and heart disease. However, they’re also essential to a healthy diet, helping many systems to function properly, aiding the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients, and the production of key hormones. Good fats are macronutrients, which along with carbohydrates and proteins produce energy for our bodies and support cell growth. Fats also contribute to brain health, with nearly 70 % of the brain composed of fat.

“Saturated fats, such as those found in coconut oil, grassfed butter and ghee may contain significant health benefits when consumed in moderation,” says Keri Romerdahl, Director of Nutrition, Roundglass.

Fats, cholesterol, and triglycerides are important components of the body's biochemistry, and their levels can have a significant impact on our health. Here’s how:

Cholesterol is a type of fat that is found in our blood and is essential for our body to function properly. High levels of the wrong types of cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. A certain kind of protein called lipoprotein carries cholesterol in the blood. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is often considered bad for raising cholesterol levels. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) can be called good as it helps to manage cholesterol levels and can lower the risk of heart disease. Fiber-rich foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds help lower LDL.

Triglycerides are a type of fat that is stored in our body's fat cells and can be used for energy. High levels of triglycerides in the blood have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, particularly when combined with high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.

“Recent studies have shown that the type of saturated fats that cause heart attacks are palmitic and stearic acid which are the ones that come from eating sugar and carbs. A process called de novo lipogenesis occurs where our body turns excess carbohydrates into fat,” says nutritionist Nadia Mahmud.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Cooking oils are typically classified based on the types of fat they contain. Understanding the distinct properties of the different types of fats that we cook with and consume will help to use them the right way in our cooking and meals:

Saturated Fats: These are fats saturated with hydrogen molecules and are often called “bad” fats. 
  • Texture: Typically, solid at room temperature.
  • Found in: Mostly animal products such as red meat, shortening, butter, cream, palm oil, and cheese. Saturated fats are also found in processed and packaged foods like biscuits, cookies, cakes, doughnuts, pizzas, hamburgers, and fried foods.
  • Attributes: Excessive consumption of saturated fats has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, some saturated fats, such as those found in coconut oil, and grass-fed butter and ghee may have some health benefits when consumed in moderation.

Monosaturated Fats: These are often called “good” fats. 
  • Texture: Liquid at room temperature; can solidify when chilled.
  • Found in: Olive oil, avocado, peanut butter, and nuts.
  • Attributes: Consumption of monounsaturated fats has been linked to improved heart health, reduced inflammation, and better insulin sensitivity.

Polyunsaturated Fats: These are healthy fats. 

  • Texture: Liquid at room temperature.
  • Found in: Fatty fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds.
  • Attributes: Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are rich in essential fatty acids such as omega-3s, which are important for brain function, hormone production, and cell growth. Polyunsaturated fats include both good and bad fats and it’s best to get them from whole foods and not from processed foods and refined vegetable oils with high amounts of omega-6s.
Trans Fats: Manufactured fats are also known as partially hydrogenated fats.
  • Texture: Soft or semi-soft.
  • Found in: Processed commercial baked foods like cookies, cakes, pastries, fried foods like chips or French fries, pizza, and margarine, among others.
  • Attributes: Consumption of trans fats has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and should be avoided as much as possible. Trans fats are especially harmful because they not only raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels but also lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease.

Benefits of Healthy Oils and Fats

Given the wide range of oils and fats it helps to know the properties of different types of oils and know what best type of cooking they are suited for. The best oils for most cooking and frying are those that have a higher smoke point, are unrefined, and are lower in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.

Lisa Howard, author of The Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils says, “A lot of people don't realize that vitamins A, D, E, and K are fat-soluble, meaning that we need to consume fat with foods rich in those vitamins in order to be able to access those vitamins. Choosing an unrefined, omega-3-rich oil like walnut or flaxseed is a great way to tap into the nutrition of many foods!”

Oils are also important to elevate the taste of food. “Ghee is not only one of the best fats to cook with, but it is so nourishing and delicious,” says Ayurveda cookbook author and expert Divya Alter. Oils can add depth and flavor to dishes when added raw. Some are best for grilling, shallow frying or sauteing and others for deep frying or roasting.

Howard says, “My first consideration for choosing a cooking oil is what temperature do I want to use: high, medium, or low?” Oils with higher smoking point are good for stir fries and frying. The temperature at which an oil begins to release smoke before boiling is called its smoke point. Overheating oils or reheating and reusing them can turn them into carcinogens. Oils with low smoke points are best for dressings and dips.

Let Amanda Cohen show you the best oil to use for a vinaigrette

Here are some attributes and health benefits of the recommended oils:

EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL (EVOO): Rich in monounsaturated fats.
  • Benefits: Can help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and lower blood pressure.
  • Best for: Consuming raw as a dressing or drizzled while roasting and low heat cooking as it has a smoke point of 350°F.
AVOCADO OIL: Rich in monounsaturated fats.
  • Benefits: It can help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and improve blood lipid levels.
  • Best for: Most types of cooking as it has a high smoke point at 465°F.
MUSTARD OIL: Popular in the Indian sub-continent.
  • Benefits: It has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties and is used in Ayurveda for skin health. It is best to use it in moderation as it contains erucic acid which can be harmful in large amounts.
  • Best for: Sauteing, stir-frying, pickling with a smoke point of 480°F.
COCONUT OIL: Rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
  • Benefits: Coconut oil may improve cognitive function, and support heart health.
  • Best for: Baking and stir-frying, tempering in Asian and Indian cooking with a smoke point of 350°F.
GRASS-FED GHEE & BUTTER: Rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
  • Benefits: May help improve heart health and reduce inflammation. In Ayurveda consuming ghee is recommended for better gut health and heart health.
  • Best for: Baking, sauteing, stir-frying, tempering, drizzling for flavor on certain foods with a 465°F smoke point compared to butter’s at 350°F.
WALNUT OIL: Rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Benefits: Can help improve brain function, reduce inflammation, and improve heart health.
  • Best for: Flavor addition to foods in the form of dips, dressings, or marinades. Not recommended for cooking; has a smoke point of 320°F.
ALMOND OIL: Rich in monounsaturated fats.
  • Benefits: Can help improve heart health and lower inflammation.
  • Best for: Use it raw in dressings; has a smoke point of 430°F.
SESAME OIL: Rich in antioxidants.
  • Benefits: Can help reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and improve heart health.
  • Best for: Using raw while pickling in South Indian cuisine and as a dressing and to add flavor to food in southeast Asian food and sautéing and tempering. Has a smoke point of over 410°F.
FLAXSEED OIL: Rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
  • Benefits: Can improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and improve brain function.
  • Best for: Adding to raw salads and dips and as a finishing oil only or vinaigrette, but not recommended for frying or cooking in high heat. Has a smoke point of around 225°F.
HEMP OIL: Rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
  • Benefits: Can help improve heart health, reduce inflammation, and improve brain function.
  • Best for: Adding raw and can also be used for mild sautéing but not baking or frying. Has a smoke point of over 330°F.

What types of oils to avoid?

Experts recommend avoiding oils that tend to be higher in omega-6 fatty acids which are inflammatory, ones that are heavily processed like trans fats, or healthy oils that are exposed to high temperatures which cause them to become oxidized.

Many nutritionists caution against soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, palm oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, and margarine. “Anything that says “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” should be avoided,” says Mahmud.

Cooking oils and fats are an essential part of any culinary creation, but it’s best to understand their impact on our health and nutrition while adding them to food.

Here’s Shenarri Freeman with her party pleaser Tamarind BBQ Oyster Mushrooms 

The Benefits

  • The properties of different kinds of cooking fats and oils
  • Their health benefits and drawbacks
  • How to choose the right ones for various cooking methods

About the Teacher

Sudha G Tilak

Sudha G Tilak

Sudha G Tilak is a journalist who has reported from India, Sri Lanka and the UK. She is based out of Gurgaon and is a writer, translator, editor of books on food and travel, and a vegetarian. She is committed to building culinary connections and initiating healthy conversations around the history and traditional wisdom around food.
View profile