Best Oils for Vegan Baking - What works best and why

Best Oils for Vegan Baking - What works best and why

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Best Oils for Vegan Baking

The term vegetable oil can sometimes conjure up images of generic, flavorless, lifeless oil derived from some unknown plant product using some secret, questionable industrial method. Maybe you’ve seen it, in the baking aisle of the major supermarket contained in a thin plastic bottle sporting a drab logo that hasn’t been updated since at least the early 80s. Yuck. It just makes you want to shudder. What is that stuff?

Vegetable oil can be that, but it can also a useful, helpful definition that encompasses all oils derived from plants. This blanket term is similar to how the term beer can define everything from the stale tap water taste of Budweiser to the golden elixir of Chimay Tripel. When talking food, these sorts of blanket terms have value in terms of communicating ideas.
As I’ve explored my vegan baking passion, I’ve noticed that the world is full of so many other fascinating, dedicated people who are also curious about baking without animal products. These adventurous bakers are all passionate about vegan baking for similar reasons: for some it’s to maintain good health. For others, having a minimal negative impact on animals and the environment plays a role. A distinct and growing group of people turn to vegan baking due to food allergies suffered by themselves, friends or family. 
The common theme is that people often turn to vegan baking and vegan food in general to see how they can rid themselves of a particular food product, or group of products. Vegans can be particularly inventive when it comes to dairy-free, egg-free, nut-freesoy-free, gluten-free, grain-free and even sugar-free foods. 
One of the exciting things about vegan baking is that we don’t have to play by the rules. Why don’t we just rewrite them? In recipes that call for fats, we have an extremely large toolbelt of various fats to choose from. This is why we should embrace the all-encompassing term vegetable oil
Different vegetable oils have particular aspects that may or may not fit into your preferred dietary preference. Since we’re rewriting the rules now, I’ll provide a breakdown of each oil so you can decide which one fits in your quest for your best oil for vegan baking.
Please note that technically, oils are under the umbrella of fats. Since I’m profiling vegetable-based, liquid fats for vegan baking, I’m referring to them as oils in an effort to keep things easy to understand. If you’re interested in solid fats, check out the Fats section which includes Vegan Butters and Shortening recipes along with their methods of preparation.

What makes an oil optimal for vegan baking?

All of the oils listed below have specifically been chosen for this list because they hold up extremely well in vegan baking and general baking applications. Oils that are good for baking have the following qualities:
  • Neutral flavor. The flavors of the baked item should be prominent and not influenced by the oil in most cases.
  • Tolerates high heat. The oil shouldn’t smoke or develop off flavors when exposed to high temperatures.
  • Healthy fat profile. The oil should ideally be high in monounsaturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat (coconut oil is a possible exception). A higher than normal amount of omega 3 is a bonus but not required.
  • Accessible. Since we’re going to use this oil frequently, it shouldn’t break the bank or be extremely hard to find.
I’m featuring four vegetable oils that mostly fit this criteria. Coconut oil is high in saturated fats and can be expensive but I decided to include it in this list because it’s still very highly regarded in vegan baking circles. More on coconut oil later. 
Everyone seems to have an oil they’re extremely passionate about. It’s kind of like religion. Go ahead and try to talk someone out of their preferred oil and into your preferred oil and you’ll see what I mean. 
Canola oil fan: “your coconut oil is loaded with saturated fat and doesn't have nearly as much beneficial monounsaturated fat as my canola oil” 
Coconut oil fan: “well your canola oil is GMO and over-processed!”
Be careful, a riot might ensue! The goal of this guide is not to tell you which particular oil is best, it’s to shed some light on the top group of oils recommended for vegan baking so you can make the most educated decision for what works best for you.

 In recipes that call for fats, we have an extremely large toolbelt of various fats to choose from. This is why we should embrace the all-encompassing term vegetable oil.

Why do plants produce oil?

Plants produce oil to contain the watery contents of certain cells within oily membranes, which helps the plant retain water. Plants also produce oil as an important way to store energy; oil contains about twice the calories of sugar or starch for the same weight.

What’s the difference between unrefined and refined oils?

Unrefined oils

There are multiple ways to extract oil from the oily part of a plant such as a seed, fruit or husk. Unrefined oils utilize a technique called expeller pressing or cold pressing, where the oils are extracted or expelled by mechanical pressure, which break the cells apart so the oil can drain away. Even though some heat is generated by friction and pressure, the oil usually remains under about 200F (93C). Expeller pressing is able to extract about 50 to 70 percent of the oil from the plant matter.
Since the oil is simply pressed from the plant material, a large amount of naturally occurring nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, tocopherols (vitamin E) and other nutrients are released. This pressing also means a high amount of flavor compounds and specific fatty acids such as polyunsaturated fats are released into the oil.
Since unrefined oil has such a large concentration of unstable compounds, its advantage is also its shortfall. As these compounds oxidize, the oil becomes rancid and toxic in as little as a few months. This is why many unrefined oils such as extra virgin olive oil come packaged in dark opaque glass bottles instead of clear ones.

What’s all this fuss about oxidation?

Fat consists of carbon-hydrogen molecules bonded with electron pairs. As fat ages, oxygen slowly steals these electrons, causing the carbon-hydrogen bonds to break. The free molecules now become highly reactive against other molecules as they seek out extra electrons to replace the ones that were lost. You’d be mad too if oxygen stole your electrons! These unstable molecules are now known as free radicals and this breaking down process is known as oxidation. Heat and light accelerates this process. Some of these molecular fragments become volatile and travel into our nasal passage to be perceived as rancidity. This is why old oil doesn’t smell appetizing; you’re smelling very angry, broken oil molecules.
Free radicals can wreak havoc to other molecules and cells as they aggressively seek out new electrons which can lead to a domino effect of more free radical production; the fat breaks down further. The damage they inflict on their surroundings is known as oxidative stress. Many health experts believe oxidative stress to be the primary cause of aging and disease. This is why it’s strongly advised to discard oxidized oils.
Oil oxidation is why you can only fry with an oil up to a few times; every time the oil is heated to frying temperature, it oxidizes to a certain extent. It can never be repaired and eventually needs to be discarded.
Polyunsaturated fats are more prone to oxidation whereas saturated fats are less prone. High saturated fat content is why coconut oil can be stored at room temperature for years before turning noticeably rancid. Conversely, flax oil can go rancid in mere days if left unrefrigerated and is extremely sensitive to heat due to the large amounts of polyunsaturated fat it contains.
In baking applications, we have almost no use for unrefined oils because the heat of baking oxidises these compounds, deactivating them so they offer little benefit, if any, in nourishment or flavor. The brief blast of heat isn’t always substantial enough to bring on rancidity and actually make the oil toxic, but it does act as a quick refining process that ends up being a waste of good oil. For instance, using extra virgin olive oil in baking is usually unnecessary because the heat during baking will deactivate the flavor compounds, making the oil taste more neutral; you might as well just buy light olive oil from the outset, which is much more affordable.
Since unrefined oils have such a large amount of unstable compounds, they’re more commonly not as heat-stable as refined oils, which means they can smoke and generate toxic compounds at lower temperatures as their unstable compounds oxidize. The temperature at which this happens depends on the particular oil but as you can guess, this is often a major drawback of refined oils in the kitchen. 
What if there was a way to make oil last longer and be more flavor neutral? This is what refined oils are all about.

Refined oils

Refined oils came about due to the desire to have a more shelf-stable oil that could withstand higher temperatures. Not all oils need to go through the refining process to yield a shelf-stable, heat tolerable product. Some oils, such as coconut oil are already heat stable due to them containing a smaller amount of unstable compounds. In some cases, such as in light olive oil production, a small amount of cold pressed oil is often added back to the refined oil to provide a small amount of flavor.

Oil refining methods

Oil filtration

Filtration involves passing the oil through a filter that either absorbs or filters out unstable compounds and flavor molecules. This method is the least disruptive to the oil because it usually uses heat below 200F (93C) and doesn’t use chemicals.

Solvent extraction

With solvent extraction, also known as hexane extraction, the plant matter is broken up, heated to about 300F (149C) and washed with a petroleum-based solvent such as hexane, which allows the oil to separate out. The solvent is then removed from the oil by boiling it off. Hexane is extremely efficient, allowing up to 100% of the oil to be extracted from the plant material. However, there is concern that chemical residues can be left behind. There are also environmental issues with hexane. The US Environmental Protection Agency refers to it as a “hazardous air pollutant”. Since all of the hexane is believed to be boiled off during processing, the FDA doesn't require it to be listed as an ingredient on the label.
Due to the toxic issues surrounding the use of solvent extraction, I recommend using expeller pressed oils whenever possible.

What’s better, refined oils or unrefined oils?

Many people have the impression that all refined oils are unhealthy due the production methods used. If you’re using an unrefined oil at high temperatures, it’s possible that the toxins that are generated during heat exposure make it significantly less healthy than using a refined oil. 
To decide whether a refined or unrefined oil works best for you, it’s important to look at two things:

At what temperature am I preparing the food?
  • If you’re preparing foods with little or no heat, you should consider using an unrefined oil. 
  • If you’re preparing food at high temperatures such as deep frying, you should consider a refined oil.
Would natural oil flavors benefit or take away from the food I’m preparing?
  • In some cases, an unrefined oil can complement the flavor profile of the food you're preparing, for example,  when using unrefined coconut oil in coconut ice cream.
  • If you don't want the flavor of your baked item to be influcenced by your oil, I recommend flavor-neutral oils.

What happens when an oil reaches its smoke point?

The smoke point is defined as the temperature where a fat breaks down and visual gaseous products are formed. These gaseous products can be flammable and ignite when exposed to an open flame, effectively causing an oil fire. This breakdown consists of major oxidation of the oil which produces toxic and harsh flavor compounds, so it’s generally discouraged.

Free fatty acids determine the smoke point of the oil

The lower the free fatty acid content of the oil, the higher the smoke point. Free fatty acids can loosely be defined as fats that should be bound into tightly formed oil molecules but are instead floating freely.
Free fatty acids are generally lower in fresh oils and refined oils. This is why freshly refined oils have the lowest smoke points and are preferred for high-heat applications.

Here are the four of vegetable oils I recommend for vegan baking

Canola Oil

Canola oil was developed in the 1970s from a plant in the mustard family called mustard rape. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the name rapeseed oil wasn’t particularly appetizing so marketing wizards in Canada proposed the name, Canola, meaning Canada oil, low acid
Today’s canola oil is much different than its rapeseed origins. Due to selective breeding (some believe this to be GMO engineering which is different), canola oil features a fatty acid profile thats works extremely well in food applications. These features include a high level of monounsaturated fat, a low level of saturated fat and a neutral flavor due to low levels of erucic acid, which explains the low acid reference in the name.

Canola oil benefits

  • Canola oil’s claim to fame is its extremely high amount of monounsaturated fat in relation to polyunsaturated fat and saturated fat. Only olive oil approaches this healthy fat profile. 
  • Even unrefined canola oil has a high enough smoke point to work like a champ in vegan baking applications. If you wanted to specialize in frying, you could turn to a refined canola oil for the extra heat tolerance.
  • Canola oil also has a large proportion of omega 3 fatty acids in relation to omega 6 fatty acids, which is rare for a relatively heat-tolerant oil.

Canola oil drawbacks

  • Many people state that canola oil is a potential GMO minefield. Although its development preceded GMO crops be nearly two decades, there is concern that the majority of canola oil on the market is currently GMO. If you decide to abstain from purchasing GMO products, purchasing organic canola oil is a good way to get around the GMO issue. Spectrum brand canola oil contains no GMO canola as of this writing. An excellent writeup on canola oil can be found on their website.

Canola Oil Characteristics*

 1 Tablespoon (14.7mL)
Total fat14 grams
Monounsaturated fat8.8 grams
Polyunsaturated fat3.2 grams
Saturated fat1.1 grams
Omega 3 fatty acids840 milligrams
Omega 6 fatty acids2.2 grams
Smoke point, unrefined375 to 450F (190 to 232C)
Smoke point, refined400F (204C)
Melt/freeze point14F (-10C)

Get a price on the Canola Oil I Recommend at Amazon.

Light Olive Oil

Olive oil is unique in that it’s possibly the only oil extracted by a fruit instead of a seed or grain. Because of this, first pressings of olive oil, known as extra virgin contain high levels of healthy, flavorful unstable compounds characteristic of the fruit. 
These compounds include volatile aromatic substances such as terpenes, esters; pigments such as chlorophyll and anthocyanins; and numerous antioxidants such as phenolic compounds, tocopherols (Vitamin E and derivatives) and carotenoids. 

How olive oil is made

Olive oil is made by taking almost fully ripe olives, grinding them, pit and all into a fine paste for about 20 to 40 minutes, which gives time for the oil to separate from the olives and join together into an oily mass. This mass is then pressed to squeeze out the oil and water. This first pressing is known as extra virgin. The oil is then separated from the water by centrifuge or allowing the liquids to stand for a period of time until the oil floats to the top. The olive oil can then be skimmed off.

Refining olive oil

Since olive oil is pressed from the fruit of the olive and contains numerous unstable compounds, it’s not suitable for high-heat applications. Heat deactivates most of the compounds and the presence of the compounds results in an oil with a low smoke point. For use in baking applications, olive oil should ideally be refined so it yields a neutral flavor with a high heat tolerance.
Olive oil can be refined by filtration which commonly involves passing it through a charcoal filter. In this case, the unstable compounds are filtered out, leaving the fat composition equivalent to extra virgin olive oil. It can also be refined by solvent extraction. In some cases, small quantities of extra virgin olive oil are added back to the refined oil so there is a slight olive oil flavor. Depending on baking time and temperature, most or all of these olive flavors get deactivated during baking.

Light Olive oil benefits

  • Like canola oil, olive oil also features an impressive ratio of a high amount of monounsaturated fat and low amounts of polyunsaturated and saturated fats.

Light olive oil drawbacks

  • Depending on the refining process and the amount of heat and time used during baking, light olive oil may add a small amount of olive flavor to baked goods.
  • It's difficult to tell which brands of light olive oil are refined by flitration or solvent extraction.

Light Olive Oil Characteristics*

 1 Tablespoon (14.7mL)
Total fat14 grams
Monounsaturated fat9.8 grams
Polyunsaturated fat1.4 grams
Saturated fat1.9 grams
Omega 3 fatty acids103 milligrams
Omega 6 fatty acids1.3 grams
Smoke point, unrefinedn/a
Smoke point, refined468F (242C)
Melt/freeze point21F (-6C)

Get a price on the Light Olive Oil I Recommend at Amazon.

Rice Bran Oil

Rice bran oil is the oil extracted from the husk or germ of rice. It can either be expeller pressed or solvent extracted.

Is rice bran oil refined?

It’s my understanding that all rice bran oil is refined because:
  • When it’s produced by solvent extraction, it’s classified as refined.
  • When it’s produced by expeller pressing, it’s then filtered which classifies it as refined.

Rice bran oil benefits

  • Rice bran oil has an extremely high smoke point which can be beneficial in high heat applications such as frying. There are reports of it lending less off flavors to fried foods, resulting in a cleaner flavor at high temperatures.
  • According to some health experts, rice bran oil contains a fat profile that’s believed to be optimal according to the National Institute of Nutrition, India (NIN). This ratio is 27-33% Saturated fat, 33-40% Monounsaturated fat, 27-33% Polyunsaturated fat. According to the NIN, rice bran oil is the oil that most closely fits this ratio, clocking in at a ratio of 24: 42: 34.
  • Rice bran oil also allegedly contains chemicals that are beneficial to health. Tocotrienols are believed to have antioxidant properties and oryzanol, supposedly only found in rice bran oil, is also believed to be a powerful antioxidant.

Rice bran oil drawbacks

  • It’s extremely difficult to find expeller pressed rice bran oil. That means that the majority of the rice bran oil available on the market is derived from solvent extraction.

Rice Bran Oil Characteristics*

 1 Tablespoon (14.7mL)
Total fat14 grams
Monounsaturated fat5.4 grams
Polyunsaturated fat4.8 grams
Saturated fat2.7 grams
Omega 3 fatty acids218 milligrams
Omega 6 fatty acids4.6 grams
Smoke point, unrefined490F (254C)
Smoke point, refinedn/a
Melt/freeze point14-23F (-5 to -10C)

Get a price on the Rice Bran Oil I Recommend at Amazon.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is made by extracting the oil from the kernel or meat of the coconut harvested from the coconut palm. There are several ways to process coconut oil:

The Dry Production Process

In the dry process, the meat of the coconut is broken up and heat is applied to evaporate as much water as possible. This creates copra, which is dried coconut. To extract the oil, the copra is then either expeller pressed or subjected to solvent extraction. The leftover coconut solids are usually used as animal feed.

The Wet Production Process

In the wet process, the drying step is skipped. It’s important to note that in coconut meat, the oil and water are kept in an emulsion by the protein in the meat. The wet process is all about breaking this emulsion and separating the oil from the water. This can be done using centrifuges and/or a combination of heat, cold, salts, acids and enzymes. The wet process is less efficient at extracting the oil from the meat compared to the dry process.

Unrefined coconut oil

Unrefined coconut oil commonly goes through a quicker dry process or wet process before being expeller pressed. This ensures that most of the aroma and flavor compounds remain in the oil.

Refined coconut oil

Refined coconut oil, also known as deodorized coconut oil, goes through the dry process or wet process before being refined. The refining process consists of bleaching and deodorizing. For the bleaching phase, the coconut meat is passed through clay-based filters to remove any off-colors. Heat is then applied to deactivate enzymes that would normally spoil the oil. For the deodorizing phase, high heat is applied to remove the flavor and aroma compounds. 
No matter how coconut oil is processed, the fat profile remains the same.

What about saturated fats? Aren’t they bad?

The health aspects of saturated fats has been a debate that has rattled on for decades. It seems as if it depends on who you ask, on which particular day and which direction the wind is blowing. You can argue for or against the health benefits of saturated fats and point to extremely vast numbers of studies on both sides. The problem is that most health studies are flawed. 
To compound this, there’s another belief that animal-derived saturated fats are bad for health and coconut derived saturated fats are good for health. I used to believe the saturated fat from coconut is healthy but now I’m not sure. Who do you believe? I’d hate to make a recommendation and have it turn out to be wrong. The amount of data on both sides makes me extremely untrustful of people who claim wholeheartedly to know the answer.
So in the meantime, I’ve decided to eat coconut oil in moderation. That is, for the next twenty or so years, until the health experts wholeheartedly know the answer!

Coconut oil benefits

Unrefined coconut oil enhances creamy flavors
  • Coconut oil contains lactones which are flavor compounds found in peaches and cream. Coconut oil can be an extremely valuable flavor enhancer when your goal is to to enhance the creaminess or richness of a dessert.
The type of saturated fats might play a role
  • Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a specific type of saturated fat that’s also known as a medium chain fatty acid. Since the saturated fats in coconut are made of mainly medium chain fatty acids, there’s speculation that the saturated fat in coconut oil may not be as detrimental to health as animal-based saturated fats, which are made up of fatty acids with longer chains.
  • It’s thought that these medium chain fatty acids get metabolized by the body more rapidly like a starch so they’re less likely to contribute to weight gain.
The lauric acid may have antimicrobial properties and other immune system boosting effects.

Coconut oil drawbacks

  • The same flavor enhancing characteristics of unrefined coconut oil can make it a drawback if the flavors aren’t compatible with what you’re trying to convey. For this purpose, you’ll have to seek out refined coconut oil which is usually harder to find.
  • Coconut oil solidifies below about 77F (25C) which means that if you add it to ingredients that are cooler than that temperature, the coconut oil can solidify which will keep it from adequately being mixed into the other ingredients. To work around this, the ingredients you’re mixing the coconut oil into will have to exceed 77F (25C).
  • Coconut oil unfortunately contains very little, if any, omega 3 fatty acids. 
  • Coconut oil is chock full of saturated fat which may or may not be bad for your health, depending on who you talk to. Who advises against the use of large amounts of coconut oil due to its high levels of saturated fat as of this writing? Oh I don’t know, maybe just the United States Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the British National Health Service, the International College of Nutrition, and the Dietitians of Canada.

Coconut Oil Characteristics*

 1 Tablespoon (14.7mL)
Total fat14 grams
Monounsaturated fat602 milligrams
Polyunsaturated fat167 milligrams
Saturated fat12 grams
Omega 3 fatty acids0
Omega 6 fatty acids167 milligrams
Smoke point, unrefined350F (177C)
Smoke point, refined450F (232C)
Melt/freeze point77F (25C)

Get a price on the Refined Coconut Oil I Recommend at Amazon.

Other oils

I didn’t include grape seed oil in this list. This is due to the difficulty of finding it expeller pressed. Most grape seed oil is produced via solvent extraction. I also don’t believe that it’s superior to any of the other oils in this list in terms of fat profile, smoke point or nutritive compounds.

So what type of oil do you recommend for vegan baking?

Years ago I was reading an article by Dr. Andrew Weil and remember him saying something to the effect of “the only oils you need in your kitchen are canola oil and extra virgin olive oil”. As I go through life, logging more hours in my kitchen and learning more about food, I become more and more convinced that this rule is true for me.
Extra virgin olive oil contains a treasure trove of beneficial compounds. It doesn’t hurt that it tastes amazing. I use it as a finishing oil on foods that aren’t heated substantially such as in sauces, spreads and salads. 
I use mostly organic (non GMO), unrefined expeller pressed canola oil for baking applications. I love the neutral flavor, fat profile and the price isn’t too expensive. If I were frying everything in sight I would probably invest in rice bran oil.

Occasionally, I’ll take advantage of the extra creamy oomph that a bit of unrefined coconut oil can lend to foods such as ice creams, chocolate-based desserts and custards. In these cases, I’ll usually substitute the unrefined coconut oil for about a quarter of the total fat in the recipe. The goal here is to enhance creamy richness and depth of flavor. If your tasters detect coconut, you've gone too far.
Although I’ve found what oils work for me, I understand that oil preference in the kitchen is a hotly debated topic. That’s why I’d love to hear your vegan baking oil preferences. So what kind of oil do you use for vegan baking and why?
*Note that these values are averages and may vary slightly. Oil characteristic values are from WolframAlpha.