Deep frying is hardly the healthiest way of cooking but it does have some advantages. After all, other cooking methods fail to recreate that same combination of taste and texture that deep frying offers.
And, despite its reputation, you don’t have to avoid the approach entirely.
Instead, you can minimize the disadvantages by choosing the best oil for deep frying.
And, the answer to this topic may not be what you expect. In fact, the criteria that are used to find the best oils are typically incorrect and make make people put their health at risk.
So, in this post, we’re taking a look at the best oils and why they are so significant. These conclusions also apply to other types of high temperature cooking. For example, the oils discussed will often be the best oils for frying as well.
Why The Oil Matters
With deep frying, foods are immersed in hot oil, typically between 350°F and 375°F. The high temperature will always have a significant impact on the food that you’re cooking and on whatever oil you’re using.
As a result, you need to choose an oil that will withstand high temperatures without causing any issues. Traditional approaches suggest that you should rely on vegetable oils and similar options., which means that you end up with polyunsaturated oils for deep frying.
Those ideas are strongly based on avoiding saturated fat wherever possible and choosing an oil that has a high smoke point. Yet, saturated fat may actually offer health benefits, rather than putting your health at risk.
What’s more, many vegetable oils contain significant levels of omega-6 fatty acids. Many of us get too much omega-6 in our diet anyway (omega-3 is the desirable type). But, more relevantly, omega-6 fatty acids are unstable at high temperatures. As a result, they tend to be oxidized and can form damaging compounds (1,2,3).
Polyunsaturated oils tend to oxidize faster because of their structure anyway and are less stable as the temperature increases. That oxidation is concerning because it leads to oxidative stress, which can raise disease risk and inflammation.
The end result is that you should avoid vegetable oils entirely when cooking at high temperature, which includes canola oil, rice bran oil and anything marketed as simply ‘vegetable oil’. Instead, you need to be choosing something that is more stable at the temperatures that you are frying at. This means oils that are high in monounsaturated fat and/or saturated fat.
Vegetable oils are a poor choice for deep frying as they tend to oxidize
The Healthiest Oils You Can Use
So, if traditional recommendations aren’t that great, what oils can you safely rely on for deep frying? Well, there are multiple choices and these each have their own advantages and disadvantages.
For the most part, you can choose any of the six on this list. But, you may find that some are more suitable for your needs than others.
With this discussion, the fat levels given are percentages of the total fat in the oil. However, the information should be used as a rough guide only, as there can be variations between different brands. Estimates of smoke points are also approximate for the same reasons and resources often vary considerably in the value that they calculate.
If you’re interested, you can also find out more about the various types of fats and how they differ by checking out this post from Precision Nutrition.
Coconut oil has been making waves in the media lately, with some people claiming that it is amazing, while others think it is completely unhealthy. And honestly, there are some significant coconut oil benefits.
Those benefits are partly related to lauric acid, which is one reason why people turn to MCT oil for weight loss. But, as with any food, you do still need be aware of how much coconut oil you consume and what else is a part of your diet.
Coconut oil is around 87% saturated fat (4) and this is what makes it so relevant for deep frying. As a result, the odds of oxidation are much lower.
However, if you’re going to use coconut oil, you need to choose the brand carefully. In particular, it’s best to go with one that is cold pressed and that doesn’t use chemicals like hexane in the extraction process.
For frying, coconut oil works well and it is relatively inexpensive, which is another advantage. But, coconut oil does have a noticeable flavor to some people. As such, you may need to try out the oil to determine whether you like the way it tastes in your favorite recipes.
Fat Composition (5):
- Saturated fat: 87.6%
- Monounsaturated fat: 5.8%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 1.8%
Smoke Point: 350°F (6)
With its high saturated fat content, coconut oil is an extremely stable option for deep frying
Lard was a popular fat choice at one point in time, although it has gone out of style in recent years. As a result, it can sometimes be difficult to find, although you can ask at butcher’s shop (as the fat is rendered from pigs).
It is also something you can find online, including through Amazon. For example, one good option for lard can be found here. This is a grass-fed version, which will tend to offer a better nutrient profile and more benefits overall.
The fat works extremely well for deep frying because of the fatty acid composition. Plus, you get a pork flavor similar to bacon, which is perfect for many meat lovers.
Fat Composition (7):
- Saturated fat: 39.2%
- Monounsaturated fat: 45.1%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 11.2%
Smoke Point: 370°F (8)
The fatty acid composition of lard makes it a good choice, especially as the flavor is appealing
Ghee is basically clarified butter. That clarification process means that you can use it at higher temperatures than would be possible with butter itself.
Both ghee and butter do offer health benefits and are particularly popular for their flavor. In fact, of the two, ghee actually tastes more buttery, which may seem counterintuitive.
They also offer various nutrients. One example is butyrate (a short-chain fatty acid), which offers a range of health benefits. Additionally, ghee tends to have almost no lactose and casein, which means that many dairy sensitive people can consume it as well.
The structure also means that ghee is incredibly stable for cooking. For that matter, ghee is also shelf-stable, so it doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
Ghee is becoming increasingly popular in many kitchens, which makes it easy to find. In fact, you can probably source it at many grocery and health food stores. However, if you’re going to rely on ghee, choosing a minimally processed grass-fed brand is the best choice.
One such example is this brand, which is reasonably priced, receives amazing reviews and can be a good place to start.
You can also make ghee from home of it's too expensive or you simply don't want to buy it. The video below shows exactly how to do this.
Fat Composition (9):
- Saturated fat: 63.5%
- Monounsaturated fat: 25.9%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 3.7%
Smoke Point: 450°F (10)
Ghee is extremely popular and is another high saturated fat oil that is perfect for deep frying
Tallow is similar to lard, although it is rendered from cows rather than pigs. As such, this is another fairly old-fashioned choice for cooking. Tallow is making a comeback, although is still isn't as popular as it once was.
The composition of tallow is interesting, with similar amounts of saturated and monounsaturated fat. However, the most relevant aspect is the low levels of polyunsaturated fat, similar to the other options on this list.
From this perspective, tallow looks unimpressive.
But, it does have one key advantage, the flavor (or lack thereof). Most of the oils on this list have a fairly distinct flavor, which can be significant in some recipes. In contrast, tallow is neutral, so it is suitable for a wider range of recipes and palates.
Fat Composition (11):
- Saturated fat: 49.8%
- Monounsaturated fat: 41.8%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 4.0%
Smoke Point: 400°F (12)
While the saturated fat content of tallow isn’t as good as coconut oil or ghee, the neutral flavor makes up for this difference
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Most people say that you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil – much less fry with it. But, this isn’t actually true.
The main reason for the assumption is the smoke point of olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil. Estimates for smoke point vary considerably but this may be as low as 220°F (13).
That smoke point alone implies that you shouldn’t cook with olive oil but the research doesn’t support that idea.
Instead, olive oil can work well for cooking and for deep frying because it is resistant to heat and doesn’t tend to oxidize (14,15). This is because of the polyphenols in olive oil, which help to protect it.
That being said, you’re unlikely to get all of the health benefits of olive oil if you are deep frying with it. After all, heat stable or not, the high temperature of deep frying will have some impact on the compounds in olive oil.
Olive oil isn’t the best choice for deep frying, especially as it contains relatively little saturated fat. Nevertheless, it does fare surprisingly well and is an interesting alternative for some situations.
Fat Composition (16):
- Saturated fat: 13.8%
- Monounsaturated fat: 73.1%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 10.5%
Note: fat composition is for olive oil, not extra virgin. However, the distribution between the types is similar. There may be considerable variation in fat composition and in smoke points between brands and varieties.
Extra virgin olive oil isn’t as good for deep frying but it can still work well and doesn’t tend to oxidize
Like olive oil, avocado oil isn’t the ideal choice for deep frying but it is still a viable alternative. In both cases, the majority of the oil consists of monounsaturated fat. This composition is also why both avocado and olive oil are liquid at room temperature, while the other options are not.
Avocado oil is similar to olive oil in many other ways, with both offering a range of healthy compounds and the potential for health benefits. Those compounds reduce the risk of oxidation during cooking, which makes them a good choice.
Estimates generally suggest that the smoke point of avocado oil is higher than for olive oil, which is why it is often preferred for cooking. However, as the other examples show, smoke point isn’t extremely relevant and the fat composition is much more significant.
Fat Composition (20):
- Saturated fat: 11.6%
- Monounsaturated fat: 70.6%
- Polyunsaturated fat: 13.5%
Smoke Point: 520°F (21)
Avocado oil is another interesting alternative and performs in a similar way as olive oil
What’s the Absolute Best Oil For Frying?
All of these options can work well when you’re deep frying. This means that you can pick whichever one you have at hand. As for the absolute best, that depends on what you’re looking for.
In terms of health alone, coconut oil offers the most benefits. It is also the highest in saturated fat, which means that it is more stable overall. But, the flavor is significant and not everyone enjoys coconut oil.
So, for flavor benefits, you may consider tallow or ghee. Ghee has that buttery taste that everyone loves – although it won’t complement all recipes. In contrast, tallow is mostly flavorless, so it lets the taste or your food shine through.
Coconut oil is the most powerful oil for deep frying, although both ghee and tallow are good alternatives if flavor is important
Alternatives to Deep Frying
Needless to say, deep frying isn’t an especially healthy way to eat.
The biggest argument for this is the fat involved. In reality, this isn’t as significant as you might expect, especially if you’re deep frying with healthy fats, like the ones from earlier.
For that matter, research is increasingly illustrating that fat can be beneficial and isn’t the dietary villain that we often assume. This is even true for saturated fats and Dr. Mercola has a powerful article on precisely why that pattern exists.
But, even if you’re using a healthy fat, deep frying is an intense cooking method, one that uses extreme temperatures. This aspect alone can be bad for health, especially as high temperature cooking can promote the production of damaging compounds – including AGEs (22).
The term AGEs is short for advanced glycation end products. These compounds have been linked to higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress and may also increase the risk of cancer and disease (23,24).
The end result is that you can still include deep fried foods in your diet, especially if you rely on healthy fats. But, you should limit how frequently you consume them.
Additionally, make sure you get enough antioxidants in your diet, including polyphenols (such as those in dark chocolate and cocoa). These compounds help to lower oxidative stress, helping to decrease the risk of any negative outcomes.
Of course, frying food isn’t the only way to make it taste amazing. Instead, there are other approaches out there that taste as good, if not better. When it comes down to it, deep frying is a fairly limited way to cook anyway, as you don’t have much control over the cooking process and the final flavors.
With that in mind, it’s worth stepping back from the deep fryer and looking for recipes that offer more flavors and extra health benefits. Many of the recipes that we’ve featured in the past easily meet that goal and you can also find other examples on sites like ruled.me, Contentedness Cooking and The Primal Palate.
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