Such a slick spread

Such a slick spread


Such a slick spread

Choosing oil for the kitchen these days is a slippery business — simply reaching for the olive oil is not on. Supermarket shelves are now groaning with different types of oil, from pumpkin seed to hemp — and all have their merits. The most recent contender is the much loved argan oil, used by chefs and celebrities. So how do you choose between these “new” oils and what are their benefits?

The science bit

First of all, a bit of science is useful to understand the healthiest way to use them. Saturated oils, often solid at room temperature, are the most stable and can withstand high cooking temperatures. Polyunsaturated oils are generally the least stable and susceptible to turning rancid, so best used raw or at low temperatures, and stored in the fridge. Monounsaturated oils, known as heart healthy (like olive oil), are liquid at room temperature and more stable than polyunsaturated oils.

Some health experts believe it’s important to choose oil according to its smoke point, or the temperature at which it starts to smoke and break down into potentially harmful compounds. However, most nutritionists agree oil needs to reach extremely high temperatures, or be reused repeatedly, before it poses a health risk. It’s also worth bearing in mind that refined oils lose some of their flavour and nutrients if they are extracted using high temperatures and/or solvents, unlike cold-pressed oils such as extra virgin olive oil. Look for brands of the oils that say cold pressed or unrefined on the label.

Argan oil

Until recently, argan oil was probably best known for its use as a beauty product,
appearing on the ingredients list of luxury hair and skin products. However, this highly nutritious and tasty ‘liquid gold’ that is used in middle-eastern cooking seems to finally be getting the credit it deserves as a culinary ingredient after well-known chefs such as Yotam Ottolenghi and Gizzi Erskine have sung its praises.

Extracted from the nuts of the argan tree, it has a light, toasted nutty flavour. Heating at a high temperature can damage its chemical profile so it is best saved for drizzling over salads, roasted vegetables and desserts, where its luxurious flavour can be fully appreciated. Nutritionally, argan oil boasts of a healthy array of omega-3 fatty acids and three times more Vitamin E than olive oil. It is also amazing for digestion and the skin.

Pumpkin seed oil

This is the new must-have for health-conscious celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, and it’s easy to see why. Rich in unsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals, the oil is claimed to have a wide range of health benefits including improved mood, skin and menopausal symptoms. With a relatively low smoke point, pumpkin oil is best used raw as it spoils when heated. So add it to dressings, drizzle over risotto or vegetables, or use as a dip for bread — it boasts of a distinctive green colour and a robust flavour. The most prized versions come from Styria, Austria.

Avocado oil

Avocado oil, pressed from avocados, is rich in monounsaturated fats, making it a heart-healthy choice, and also high in Vitamin E. With a higher smoke point than olive oil, it is a better option for high-temperature cooking and also has a buttery neutral flavour that doesn’t interfere with other ingredients. It’s also lovely in dressings. Avocado oil oxidises when exposed to bright light; so it is best kept in the fridge in a dark bottle.

Rice bran oil

This newcomer is extracted from the hard outer layer of brown rice grains. Relatively low in saturated fat (although not as low as olive oil), it is high in oryzanol, a compound believed to help lower cholesterol, and rich in Vitamin E. With a higher smoke point than olive oil, it is better for frying and has a mild, nutty flavour.

Flaxseed oil

Flaxseed oil, also known as linseed oil, is a rich source of polyunsaturated omega-fatty acids. Research suggests it has a range of health benefits including lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as improving menopausal symptoms.

However, it is one of the most unstable edible oils, turning rancid easily, and needs to be stored in the fridge. With a very low smoke point, it should only be used raw. Its distinctive flavour can be an acquired taste, but is delicious in dressings and smoothies, or drizzled into dips or soups, or over vegetables.

Hemp oil

Extracted from the hemp plant (not to be confused with the marijuana plant), hemp oil is a rich source of protein, polyun-saturated omega-fatty acids and fibre. It has a low smoke point so is best kept in the fridge and used raw. With a slight nutty flavour, add it to dressings, dips or smoothies or drizzled over vegetables.

Coconut oil

Coconut oil is enjoying a long-running surge in popularity, despite dividing health experts. It is high in saturated fat, specifically lauric acid, which some health experts say is a healthier fat source. They also point out that not all coconut oil is the same, and recommend avoiding refined or partially hydrogenated coconut oil in favour of unrefined virgin coconut oil.

Being solid at room temperature, it is popular with vegans who use it as a substitute for butter for spreads and in baking. It has a sweet, distinctive coconut taste. Virgin coconut oil has a mid-smoke point, so is not suitable for high temperature cooking such as deep-frying.

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