All food sources that we think of as “fats”—we’re talking butter, shortening, oils—are made up of fatty acids. These fatty acids have specific chemical shapes that affect both how the fat performs in cooking (or baking) and how the fat affects your health. These chemical shapes generally are classified as saturated, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated. All fats contain all three types but are classified by the type of fatty acid that makes up most of the fat. For example, since butter consists mostly of “saturated” fatty acids, it’s considered a “saturated fat.”
Examples: butter, lard, shortening
How to spot them: They’re solid at room temperature.
Health notes: A diet high in saturated fat has been linked with elevated cholesterol levels and increased risk for heart disease, so it’s best to limit use of them.
Examples: canola oil, sunflower oil, walnut oil
How to spot them: They’re always liquid—even if you put them in the fridge.
Health notes: When used in place of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats can help to improve blood cholesterol levels, thereby reducing risk for heart disease. “Omega-6” and “omega-3” are other terms used to describe specific types of polyunsaturated oils. Although both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential for good health, omega-3s also have additional heart-health and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Examples: olive oil, peanut oil
How to spot them: They’re liquid at room temperature but become semi-solid (or cloudy) in the refrigerator.
Health effects: When substituted for saturated fats, monounsaturated fats can help to improve blood cholesterol levels, thereby reducing risk for heart disease.
In short, you should choose polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—olive and canola oils, for instance—over saturated fats, like butter and lard, to minimize your risk for heart disease. And a well-stocked kitchen includes a variety of different oils for a variety of reasons: what you’re using them for, their nutritional benefits and how much they cost.
If you have limited pantry space and a limited budget, these three oils will cover your basic cooking and baking needs.
Extra-virgin Olive Oil
In addition to being a source of monounsaturated fats, extra-virgin olive oil is also high in antioxidants called polyphenols that have been linked to heart health. (“Pure” olive oil—in other words not virgin—doesn’t contain these “bonus” antioxidants.)
Monounsaturated: 78% | Polyunsaturated: 8% | Saturated: 14%
Best uses: Use in dishes that will benefit from olive oil’s rich flavor—drizzle on steamed vegetables and use to make salad dressing or to sauté vegetables.
Its neutral flavor and high smoke point makes this oil an excellent choice for baking and sautéing. Most canola oil is highly refined—which means that it doesn’t have many antioxidants like olive oil does but it does have a relatively long shelf life.
Monounsaturated: 62% | Polyunsaturated: 31% | Saturated: 7%
Best uses: Extremely versatile, use canola oil for sautéing, roasting, baking and making salad dressings. If you want to enjoy the heart-healthy benefits of olive oil but find its flavor too strong, try using a 1:1 ratio of canola and extra-virgin olive oil when making salad dressing.
This specialty oil sports a higher price tag, but along with that comes a rich, nutty flavor and omega-3s. Walnut oil—as with all nut oils—has a short shelf life. Buy a small bottle and store it in your refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Monounsaturated: 24% | Polyunsaturated: 67% | Saturated: 9%
Best uses: Its nutty flavor doesn’t work in every dish but it’s delicious in salad dressings (try a blend of canola and walnut oils) or baked goods that would benefit from a light walnut flavor.
Extracted from grape seeds, this versatile oil is usually mild in flavor, but imported ones may have a grapy flavor and aroma. A good choice for cooking over high heat.
Monounsaturated: 17% | Polyunsaturated: 73% | Saturated: 10%
Best uses: Use this all-purpose oil for sautéing, roasting and in salad dressings.
The high smoke point of peanut oil makes it a good choice for cooking over high heat. It contains heart-healthy phytosterols, essential plant fats known to lower cholesterol and inhibit cancer.
Monounsaturated: 48% | Polyunsaturated: 34% | Saturated: 18%
Best uses: Roasting and sautéing.
Essential to Asian cooking, sesame oil has a rich, nutty flavor. You’ll often find untoasted and toasted versions with other Asian ingredients in your supermarket.
Monounsaturated: 41% | Polyunsaturated: 44% | Saturated: 15%
Best uses: Stir-fry with untoasted sesame oil; drizzle toasted sesame oil onto a finished dish to give it a toasty flavor and aroma or use in salad dressing.