Vegetable oil is a kitchen staple, and many of us use it every day. With its high burning point, vegetable oil is perfect for frying — in particular deep frying. That means it’s often used in both commercial and home cooking situations, and that most of us rely on it day to day!
Vegetable oil is a general label for oils largely derived from soybeans, or in Europe from rapeseed or canola. Calling it vegetable oil simplifies things, as mixes vary from place to place and company to company. Your vegetable oil is probably refined, meaning that it’s been degummed, deacidified, bleached, and deodorized. Or at least some of these, anyway! Refined oils are useful not only for their high burning point, but also because they have little to no flavor and so can be used for pretty much any kind of cooking. Refined oils also have a long shelf life.
As well as being useful for cooking — not only frying but baking and searing too — vegetable oil can be used in baked goods when a wet mixture is needed or if it’s your preference over butter. Actually, vegetable oil contains less saturated fat than butter and so is considered to be more healthy by many.
If you’re a real DIY type, you might be aware that vegetable oil has plenty of uses outside the kitchen to. It gets dirty hands clean, lubricates things around the house and can even be used as a moisturizer or a conditioner. If you don’t mind smelling a bit like a saucepan, that is.
But what can you use both in and out of the kitchen instead of vegetable oil? Maybe you’ve been using a bottle for ages and were just surprised by it being empty when you went to use it, or perhaps you just need a change. Despite refined oil’s positive points, many people want to try something else when they find out that many of the natural minerals and fatty acids that are a positive of oils are lost when they’re refined. I’m going to give you five options for alternatives for vegetable oil, each of them useful for a different reason.
The easiest straight swap for vegetable oil is sunflower oil. Pretty much flavorless and odorless, sunflower oil is available both refined and unrefined and is as popular as vegetable oil in some parts of the world. As you may have guessed, this oil is pressed from the seeds of sunflowers.
Sunflower oil has long been touted as heart-healthy, and you’ll find it in many kinds of margarine and alternative butter-like spreads. Refined sunflower oil can be used for deep frying just like vegetable oil can. The arguably healthier unrefined version (you may see it advertised as natural sunflower oil) has a much lower burning point and so shouldn’t be used to fry or baste, but is an excellent ingredient. It makes particularly good mayonnaise because of its mild flavor.
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has long been a health food darling. Coconut oil is one of the only oils to contain medium-chain fatty acids. These healthy fats are reportedly unlikely to be stored as fat, as they make an excellent immediate energy source. Coconut has a high burning point (also known as smoke point) so it works very well for cooking. It does, however, have a pretty distinctive coconut flavor that not everyone enjoys so try it a couple of times before you swear off veg oil forever! The flavor often adds something, especially in east Asian and southeast Asian cooking. It can also be nice in baked goods, where coconut oil can replace the fat in the recipe and the coconut flavor adds a subtle nutty sweetness to the finished product.
Another positive of vegetable oil is its non-food uses. It’s great for your skin and hair, and even as a makeup remover. The scent is definitely a good thing when it’s used for cosmetic purposes, too! Who doesn’t want to smell coconut-fresh?
3. Apple Sauce (in baking)
Okay, obviously apple sauce can’t be swapped for vegetable oil in all circumstances. You can’t fry fries in apple sauce, and I don’t advise trying! But apple sauce is a great swap for oil or butter in baking. It’s easy too, as it’s a 1:1 swap from vegetable oil to apple sauce.
If you’re swapping oil for apple sauce in a recipe, do think about flavors. It should always work in a sweet recipe but consider whether a slight apple sweetness will be a negative in a savory recipe. I’ve usually found that it works great, though!
One of the main plusses of apple sauce is that it contains pretty much no fat, but in baking it can take the place of fat. This means that if you’re trying to stay healthy (in particular heart healthy) then apple sauce is a great swap.
For many years, butter has been a maligned fat. We’ve been told that it’s the worst thing possible for us, full of saturated fat, to be avoided at any costs, as other fats have taken its crown one by one… margarine… sunflower oil… coconut oil…
But guess what?
Butter’s back, baby!
Deeper research into what fats are and are not healthy has revealed that saturated fat isn’t the big bad guy we once thought it was. The polyunsaturated fats found in oils are much worse for you, and particularly bad for the heart. Butter also has a high level of vitamin K, a harder-to-find vitamin that we all nonetheless need in our diets. Plus, obviously, butter is delicious. Unsalted is healthier than salted, and better for cooking so use that when you can, and do remember butter’s low smoke point. You can flash fry with butter, but it will burn if you heat it too long or too high.
Butter’s cousin, ghee, is the solution to many of the problems of butter. Very popular in South East Asia, ghee is simply butter with all the milk fats cooked off. It’s very easy to make, you simply clarify butter by heating it slowly for a long time.
Ghee not only has a really high burning point, making it excellent for frying, roasting and basting, but it also has an incredibly long shelf life. In fact, look after you ghee and you could be using it for up to a year! On top of that, ghee is suitable for people with lactose intolerance issues.
Just like butter, ghee is a total saturated fat rather than a poly-unsaturated fat. As such, modern research says that it’s probably neutral for heart health. In fact, when rats were given a diet that was 10% ghee their health wasn’t impacted at all. Ghee obviously has a lot of calories, though, so as with all oils use it only as much as you need to and in conjunction with a generally balanced diet.
Because of sunflower oil’s many uses there are many options for replacement products. These five are, in fact, just a starting point. If you want a salad oil, try a good olive oil or even avocado oil. And to fry Asian foods or anything else that would go with the nuttiness, how about sesame oil? Pretty much every culture has an oil they use for frying, and these days you can get most of those in your local grocery store. So, feel free to play around with oils and decide what suits you best for daily use or perhaps what suits you best dish by dish!
Of course, finding the perfect oil for every occasion is one thing. Replacing sunflower oil when you’ve run out and it’s time to cook are another. The basic rules to stick to are as follows:
You can use sunflower oil just as you would vegetable oil. They are very close to being the same thing, just with a slightly different flavor and color.
For baking, use apple sauce or butter. Apple sauce is pretty much the healthiest option, including being low in calories.
For frying, coconut oil or ghee work, as long as you like the coconut flavor of coconut oil that is. If not, go for ghee.
Coconut oil is by far the best option for use as a moisturizer, conditioner, etc.
Butter is great for quick cooking, but not for longer cooking or deep frying. Butter has the richest flavor or all the options I provided too.