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First, let's get one thing straight: All cooking oils are fats. All oils have a mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, have roughly 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon and 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." But choices can be confusing as we keep hearing from nutritional experts that some fats cause weight gain and may contribute to heart disease, yet on the other hand, fats aid in the absorption of certain vitamins and certainly make foods taste better.

The question is, what is the best fat choice for you?

You already know that extra virgin olive oil is good for you. But what do you choose when it's time to branch out and try something new? Is coconut oil really the new darling of fats? There are a lot of cooking oils out there and many have misleading health claims on the label. It can be a bit overwhelming when you walk down the oil aisle in the store.

And what about the myriad oils that are finding their way to supermarket shelves and being featured in the gourmet sections of home stores and boutiques? Can you cook with walnut oil? Is avocado oil full of fat? Are some oils healthier than others?

Some oils are very healthful, others not so much — and for different reasons. Trying to find the healthiest cooking oil can be a daunting task.

One one hand, you want to cook with an oil that has a high flash (smoke) point, but you also need to use a cooking oil that has a healthy balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids — and even better if the oil is loaded with antioxidants and vitamins. Knowing the smoke point of an oil is important because heating oil to the point where the oil begins to smoke produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals.

A well-stocked kitchen includes a variety of different oils for a variety of reasons: what you're using them for and their nutritional benefits. To help you wade through the oil aisle, here's a guide to those best recommended fats and what to choose for your purpose:

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Scallops with Spice Oil

Recipe from Bon Appétit

Spice oil:

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

6 black peppercorns plus freshly ground for seasoning

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt plus more

1/4 cup olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon (or more) fresh lemon juice

Scallops

1 1/2 tablespoons canola or olive oil

8 large or 12 medium sea scallops, side muscle removed

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cups mixed cilantro and flat-leaf parsley with tender stems

Olive oil (for drizzling)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

For spice oil:

Grind first 4 ingredients and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a fine powder in spice mill. Transfer to a small saucepan over medium-low heat; add oil. Cook until oil begins to simmer, 2-3 minutes. Scrape into a small bowl; stir in garlic and lemon zest. Let cool for 5 minutes, then stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice. Season with salt, pepper, and more juice, if desired. Can be made 1 week ahead. Cover; chill. Rewarm before using.

For scallops:

Heat grapeseed oil in a large heavy skillet over high heat until oil begins to smoke. Season scallops with salt and pepper. Sear until well browned, about 3 minutes. Turn; cook until just barely opaque in center, about 30 seconds longer.

Meanwhile, place herbs in a medium bowl and drizzle olive oil and lemon juice over; season salad to taste with salt and pepper. Divide scallops between 2 plates; spoon 1 tablespoon spice oil over each plate (reserve remaining oil for another use). Garnish with salad.

Serves 2.

Per serving: 350 calories; 28 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 72 percent calories from fat); 8 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 33 mg cholesterol; 805 mg sodium; 19 g protein; 2.5 g fiber.

Tuscan Kale with Sesame Oil

Recipe from Bon Appétit.

2 bunches Tuscan kale, ribs and stems removed, leaves torn

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

Rinse kale; shake dry, leaving some water clinging. Heat olive and sesame oils in a large skillet over medium heat. Add kale; season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook, tossing occasionally, until just tender, 7–10 minutes. Serves 8.

Per serving: 58 calories; 5 g fat (1 g saturated fat; 78 percent calories from fat); 4 g carbohydrates; 1 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 75 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Bread with Chocolate and Olive Oil

From "The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià" by Ferran Adrià

6 ounces dark chocolate, 60-percent cocoa

6 slices 1-pound white country-style loaf, cut into 8 slices

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sea salt flakes

Preheat the oven or boiler to approximately 325 degrees. Coarsely grate the chocolate onto a plate. Place the bread on a baking sheet or heatproof plate. Toast under the broiler until golden on both sides. Spoon the grated chocolate over the toast, covering it completely. Pour the olive oil over the chocolate and sprinkle with the salt flakes.

Per serving: 442 calories; 21 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 43 percent calories from fat); 55 g carbohydrates; 16 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 603 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 3 g fiber.

Sweet Olive Oil Quick Bread

Recipe from Epicurious

2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

Pinch salt

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, lightly beaten

3/4 cup milk

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2sultana raisins

Grated zest of 1 lemon

Unsalted butter for loaf pan

1/4 cup pine nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir in the sugar. Add the eggs, milk and olive oil, and beat well.

Toss the raisins in a little flour to coat them lightly. Add the raisins and lemon zest to the flour and egg mixture and stir to distribute evenly.

Butter and flour a loaf pan. Transfer the batter into the pan and smooth the surface. Sprinkle the top with pine nuts. Bake for 55 minutes, or until a thin skewer inserted in the center comes out dry. Let cool for a few minutes. Unmold and cool on a rack. Serves 8.

Per serving: 389 calories; 16 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 40 percent calories from fat); 57 g carbohydrates; 31 g sugar; 56 mg cholesterol; 244 mg sodium; 6 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Pan Roasted Sea Bass with Avocado Oil

Recipe from Bon Appétit

2 oranges

2 pink grapefruits

Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper

Four 6-ounce skinless fillets white or Mexican sea bass or grouper (about 1-inch thick)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 avocado, halved, pitted, peeled, cut into wedges

4 tablespoons avocado oil

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Using a small sharp knife, cut off all peel and white pith from fruit. Working over a medium bowl, cut between membranes to release segments into bowl. Squeeze in juices from membranes; discard membranes. Drain fruit, reserving 1/2 cup juices. Return segments and juices to bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Pat fish dry. Season with salt and pepper. Heat a large heavy ovenproof skillet over high heat. Add olive oil. Add fish; cook without moving, occasionally pressing fish gently with a spatula to keep all of surface in contact with pan, until fish is golden brown and releases easily from pan, 4–5 minutes.

Turn fish, transfer to oven, and roast until just opaque in the center, 3–5 minutes.

Place fruit and avocado on plates. Top with fillets. Spoon 2 tablespoons citrus juices over fruit on each plate. Drizzle 1 tablespoon avocado oil over fish and fruit. Serves 4.

Per serving: 434 calories; 27 g fat (3 g saturated fat; 56 percent calories from fat); 20 g carbohydrates; 14 g sugar; 60 mg cholesterol; 224 mg sodium; 29 g protein; 5 g fiber.

Ice Cream with Roasted Grapes and Walnut Oil

Recipe from Gourmet

3/4 pound red seedless grapes (2 cups)

6 teaspoons walnut or pistachio oil, divided

1 pint vanilla ice cream

1/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pistachios, toasted

Preheat broiler.

Toss grapes with 2 teaspoons oil in a shallow baking pan and broil 5 to 6 inches from heat just until grapes burst, about 6 minutes.

Spoon grapes with juice over scoops of ice cream, then sprinkle with nuts and drizzle each serving with 1 teaspoon of remaining oil. Serves 4.

Per serving: 298 calories; 19 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 57 percent calories from fat); 31 g carbohydrates; 26 g sugar; 29 mg cholesterol; 55 mg sodium; 4 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Monounsaturated fat

Considered a "good" type of fat. When substituted for saturated fats, monounsaturated fats can help to improve blood cholesterol levels, thereby reducing risk for heart disease. How to spot them: They're liquid at room temperature but become semi-solid (or cloudy) in the refrigerator. If your plan is to only keep two types of oil on hand, the best choices are olive oil and canola. They're versatile and heart healthy, according to the American Dietetic Association, and they are perfect for cooking and making salad dressings.

Olive oil: Well known for heart healthy benefits. It can raise the HDL (good cholesterol) and lower the amount of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream. Use it for low and medium temperature cooking and in salad dressings. Look for extra virgin olive oil, as it has more nutrients and antioxidants than the refined type and it tastes so much better. Light olive oil refers to the color and flavor, not the fat or calorie count. It just has more neutral flavor. 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 antioxidants.

Canola oil: Derived from rapeseeds. The fatty acid breakdown is fairly good with most of the fatty acids monounsaturated. It also contains Omega-6 and Omega 3s. It is inexpensive, versatile and neutral in flavor. Can be used in baking or frying to a high smoke point. 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. 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.

Peanut oil: Has a mild flavor and high smoke point, good for frying. If using in salads or stir-fries, add a few drops of sesame or another nut oil for flavor. It contains heart-healthy phytosterols, essential plant fats known to lower cholesterol and inhibit cancer.

Avocado oil: The composition of avocado oil is similar to olive oil. It's use is the same as olive oil in cooking or in salad. Because of its extremely high smoke point (520 degrees), it's perfect for high-heat cooking and in a salad dressing. It has myriad health benefits, high nutrient value and the fat contained in avocado oil contains properties that help keep inflammation (such as arthritis) under control. Also, the unusually high amount of a fatty acid called oleic acid in avocado has been linked to reduced inflammation and been shown to have beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer and it has also been shown to help lower the risk of heart disease.

Polyunsaturated fats

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. How to spot them: They're always liquid — even if you put them in the fridge.

Sesame oil: Essential to Asian cooking, sesame oil has a rich, nutty flavor. You'll find untoasted and toasted versions with other Asian ingredients in your supermarket. Best uses: Stir-fry with untoasted sesame oil; drizzle toasted sesame oil onto a finished dish to give it a roasted flavor and aroma or use in salad dressing.

Walnut oil: Walnut oil has a rich, nutty flavor that is perfect for salad dressings, flavoring fish and steaks, tossing with pasta, and adding to desserts. Walnut oil is best used uncooked or in cold sauces because when it is heated, it can become slightly bitter. Rich in phytonutrients and are an excellent source of selenium, phosphorous, magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium, walnut oil provides hefty levels of Vitamins B-1, B-2, and B-3, coupled with Vitamin-E and niacin. Overall, regular use of walnut oil provides a dietary source of essential fatty acids and antioxidants. The practical benefits of this regular use are significant reductions in coronary heart disease risk and possible decreases in cancer risk and slowing of the aging process. This specialty oil sports a higher price tag, and, 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.

Saturated fats

Coconut oil: Is the new darling of oils. Has powerful health benefits, improves cholesterol and helps kill bacteria. The fats in coconut oil can also boost metabolism and increase feelings of fullness compared to other fats. Because more than 90 percent of the fatty acids are saturated, coconut oil is a good choice for high-heat cooking. The oil is semi-solid at room temperature and can last for months without going rancid. There is much anecdotal evidence touting the benefits of coconut oil, however, neither the American Heart Association (AHA) nor the U.S. government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats. Use it in cooking and baking. Coconut oil can be found not only in specialty health food stores, but at most local grocers, as well.

Butter: I have no quibble with butter, if used in small amounts. Butter has been demonized in the past because of its high fat content, but new evidence shows that butter is actually good for you and fairly nutritious, thanks to its vitamins A, E and K2. But choosing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats — olive and canola oils, for instance — over saturated fats, like butter and lard, will minimize your risk for heart disease. Also, butter will burn at high heat, so it's best to choose ghee, a clarified butter that is all pure butterfat. How to spot them: They're solid at room temperature.

It is not to be confused with trans fat, (margarine) which is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to help keep foods fresh longer. You should absolutely avoid trans fats at all costs, as it raises the LDL cholesterol.

Sources: authoritynutrition.com, whfoods.com, med-health.net, Diabetes.org.

Storing oils

Heat, oxygen and light are foes to oils.

To make sure that your fats and oils don't go rancid, don't buy large batches at a time. Buy smaller ones, that way you will most likely use them before they get the chance to become damaged.

Keep oils in a cool, dry, dark place and make sure to screw the lid on as soon as you're done using them, especially unsaturated fats like olive, peanut and avocado oil and some others. It is important to keep them in an environment where they are less likely to oxidize and go rancid.

Source: authoritynutrition.com

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