The Best All Purpose Oil: For Cooking, Vinaigrette, and Dressings

Posted by Tyler J. Arsenault B.Sc (Nutrition) on 2017 Nov 10th

I often get asked about the “best” oil to use, and my answer invariably depends on the specific circumstances in which it is used. I’d like to briefly discuss my top candidates for oils (in general), and then start narrowing them down to the first place position. Tag along if you’re interested!

Now, this discussion is going to primarily focus on the nutritional and chemical aspects of the oil and how they relate to the overall picture of health and wellbeing. The aspects of taste and smell of a particular oil won’t factor too much into this article as different dishes call for different flavoured oils, or different physical properties such as whether an oil needs to be solid or liquid at room temperature. For instance, I use toasted sesame oils, peanut oils and heavily-flavoured coconut oils when I prepare certain stir-fried dishes because of their pronounced flavour, but I would never recommend these oils as great all-rounders for a variety of reasons. I’m also not going to include any discussion on the more exotic or rare oils available.

First off, let’s immediately dive into the oils that instantly end up on the cutting room floor. Canola oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil and soybean oil fail the test, and not because of any nutritional reason per se, but they offer redundant advantages to many better oils and they’re also likely to be a product of the genetically-modified-crop industry, to which I have several ethical and moral concerns. Canola oil is actually a very well-balanced oil, and contains a fair amount of omega 3 along with soybean oil. The possibility that these oils come from genetically modified seed is quite high however, which makes them a “pass” for me.

I also don’t see the value in animal-based fats such as tallow, lard or butter, outside of specific circumstances that require a hard fat at room temperature. Animal-based fats typically have a ratio that favours high amounts of saturated fat (which can be inflammatory) and low levels of essential fatty acids, making them unsuitable for everyday use in my opinion. Ghee (or clarified butter) however does have an advantage in that is very stable at high temperatures up to 252 C / 454 F. Furthermore, I also would put coconut oil and palm oil into this category as well; unless you need a hard or saturated fat, or you’re looking for a distinct flavour such as coconut, the nutrition profile of these fats is simply too unbalanced. Yes; that’s right coconut oil worshipers – I said it.

The two aspects that I would like to consider the most when weighing these oils, are both nutritional content, and heat stability. Cold stability isn’t really a concern as all oils can handle cold temperatures quite easily.

As far as heat stability goes, avocado oil has the highest smoke point; being able to withstand up to 270 C / 520 F before it begins to degrade. Following closely behind are sunflower, sesame, grapeseed, almond and olive oil. The heat stability of these oils ranges from 232 C / 450 F on the high end with sunflower oil, all the way down to 210 C / 410 F with olive oil on the lower end. These temperatures will vary depending on how refined the oil is (more refined oils have higher smoke points)

As far as nutrition profiles go, your best oil to use long term (if you had to choose just one), would be an oil that is low in saturated fats, moderate in omega 6, higher in omega 3 and highest in monounsaturated fats. My reasons for this are probably too in-depth for this article so we can revisit this topic in future.

oil by Mattijs licensed under CC BY 2.0

Let’s look at the top contenders:

Avocado Oil

From a heat stability perspective, I would use avocado oil when I needed to cook at extremely high temperatures, but I rarely make a habit of this, or recommend doing this. Avocado oil has an excellent nutritional profile; low in saturates, low in omega 6 and high in omega 9 monounsaturated fats. It’s also relatively neutral in flavour which makes it adaptable. I’m not going to beat around the bush – avocado oil is superb all-around. The only negative point towards avocado oil is cost; compared to other oils, avocado is still a little exotic, and commands a higher price to boot.

Flax Oil

Flax oil has the most omega 3s of any plant-based oil by a long shot which makes it an incredible choice to supplement omega 3 if you’re on a plant based diet. If not, sardine/anchovy oils would reign supreme if not for their abrupt fish flavour – not something you’d like to taste all the time. Similarly, flax oil has a sharp and distinct flavour which is generally not loved by people so it loses points here. It also has an incredibly terrible heat stability just like fish oil, which means cooking with it is out of the question. Omega 3 based fats are generally just too delicate to have any heat applied to them which means using them cold in shakes, on salads, or drizzled are your only reasonable options.

Vegetable Oils (in general)

Oils such as safflower, sunflower and sesame can be great oils, but because of their higher omega 6 levels, they wouldn’t be my top pick for all-rounder. Omega 6 fats are extremely important, but rarely deficient in North American diets (quite the opposite), which means choosing an all-purpose oil that gives you added redundancy of one nutrient isn’t particularly goal-worthy. Many classic vegetable oils are also mysterious blends of various oils mixed together without necessarily stating which ones in particular. If the label says “vegetable oil”, I recommend finding another oil.

Grapeseed oil gets a lot of support from oil-savvy folk, but I tend to overlook it because of its high omega 6 content. Despite having a higher smoke point than olive oil, it really isn’t too significant – a difference of about 16 C between them. I’d sooner choose avocado oil.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is very similar to avocado oil in terms of its nutritional profile; the two are so close that they could be used interchangeably and it wouldn’t make too much difference. Olive oil (especially the refined olive oils) have a very muted flavour and can be mixed with just about anything. It can’t be heated quite as high as avocado oil, but quite honestly, I’d never recommend heating at ultra-high, as nutrients are cooked off at this temperature, and physical and chemical structures of the food in question begin to deteriorate.

And the Winner Is….

In my opinion, the best all-purpose oil would have a combination of the best neutral flavour characteristics, nutritional profile, heat stability AND cost. The winner of this contest is…..a TIE; between olive oil and avocado oil.

Avocado Oil would win the top spot if one weren’t factoring in cost and availability. Avocado oil is still not as easily found as olive oi and tends to cost more for an equally good quality olive oil. Olive oil offers almost all of the benefits of avocado oil without the high smoke point and is typically easier to find and can commonly be less expensive, although more expensive higher quality olive oils are still very common. But why marry yourself to just one? They both offer their unique advantages at different prices for different scenarios.

There may be a time and place for nearly every oil depending on the texture, chemical properties and nutritional content – I wouldn’t rule any of them out of the equation; but if I had to pick the best all-rounder(s), it would be a close rivalry between a quality olive oil and a buttery textured avocado oil. Either way, you can’t lose!