All I want to do is cook with an oil that’s versatile, affordable, and healthy. Seems like sunflower oil would fit all those check marks, but it’s not so straightforward. Did you know there are a few different types for consumers to choose from? Don’t worry—we’ll spell it all out for you below.
Smoke point: High oleic sunflower oil has a smoke point of around 450°F
Best uses: Refined sunflower oil works well for stir-frying, roasting, and sautéing. Unrefined sunflower oil can be used for dressings, drizzling, and baking.
Substitutes: Grapeseed, canola, or vegetable oil
The Origins and History of Sunflower Oil
You probably know sunflower oil best as an ingredient sold in clear plastic bottles. It’s also a common ingredient in processed foods. In recent years, sunflower oil has gained a reputation as a healthy oil for not only cooking, but also for skin and hair.
Sunflowers as a food crop go back a long time and have journeyed all over the world. In the genus Helianthus, sunflowers are native to North America, and it appears that Native Americans first domesticated sunflowers thousands of years ago.
Explorers eventually brought sunflower seeds back to Europe. Russia planted them extensively on a commercial scale for oil production. Russian immigrants to Canada brought with them knowledge of sunflower cultivation, launching the North American commercial crop on its own native soil.
Types of Sunflower Oil
The health and cooking properties of sunflower oil depend on the type of sunflower seeds it was made from, but that’s not always made clear when you’re browsing for a bottle. There are the two main types of sunflower oil available two retail consumers.
High Oleic: If you are buying sunflower oil for high heat cooking or its purported health benefits, this is the kind you want to get. Like all seed oils, sunflower oil is naturally high in polyunsaturated fat, which means it’s not a good choice for high heat cooking because it breaks down easily into compounds that aren’t good for you.
But high oleic sunflower seed oil was developed to have a larger composition of more stable monounsaturated fats, making it better for high heat cooking and far less likely to go rancid at room temperature. It’s extracted from newer varieties of sunflowers bred to yield a higher-performing oil.
How can you tell if an oil is high oleic? The best way is to choose one that says “high oleic” right on the bottle, but not many of them do. Otherwise, read the label. Claims like “low in polyunsaturated fat”, “for high-heat cooking”, “high smoke point”, or “for sauteing and frying” mean you’re on the right track.
Linoleic (low oleic): Until recent years, this was the most common type of sunflower oil. It has higher levels of polyunsaturated fats than high oleic oil, which makes it more prone to oxidizing, or going rancid.
What Does Sunflower Oil Taste Like?
Remember just above when I said there are two main types of sunflower oil? I lied. Those types are determined from the seeds used for making the oil. There’s another way to classify sunflower oil: refined and unrefined. These two types have as much to do with nutrition as they do with flavor.
Refined sunflower oil doesn’t taste like much, which is why it’s called a “neutral” oil. The process of refining removes its flavor, odor, and some of its color. It also removes some of its nutrients.
Unrefined sunflower oil tastes like (drum roll) sunflower seeds! In her book “Salt & Time,” Siberian-born chef Alissa Timoshkina writes: "Sunflowers are one of the most common seed oil crops in the former Soviet territories. The original unrefined oil, which has nothing in common with the flavorless refined type used widely for cooking, is characterized by a deep golden color and aroma of toasted seeds…it is never used for cooking, but only to drizzle on fresh salads in the summer or on a selection of ferments in winter.”
She uses it in a recipe for a moist and dense carrot and caraway cake, where it helps lend a nutty flavor.
I’ve used Flora’s certified organic unrefined sunflower oil for dressings, drizzling, and baking. It’s cold-pressed and has a nutty, slightly buttery flavor. The oil itself has a lovely dark color, and it comes in a brown glass bottle to protect it from light.
Where to Buy Sunflower Oil
Like any common ingredient, you can buy sunflower oil in regular grocery stores. Even mainstream stores are expanding their selection and sometimes offering more types, including organic and unrefined. Look for unrefined sunflower oils packaged in dark glass or metal containers, and refrigerate them after opening, which will greatly extend their shelf life.
For a more extensive selection, look at a health food store, on an online health food store.
Remember, if you want to use your oil for high-heat cooking, get high oleic sunflower oil.
How to Store Sunflower Oil
Store refined sunflower seed oil in a cool, dark cupboard away from light for anywhere from six months up to a year. If it smells funky, it’s gone rancid; throw it out.
Any type of unrefined sunflower oil should be refrigerated. Use it within 4 months.
How to Cook with Sunflower Oil
You run-of-the-mill refined sunflower oil is good for most high-heat cooking, like stir-frying, roasting, and sautéing. Sunflower oil isn’t well-suited to deep frying, as the extended high-heat temperatures make it develop undesirable compounds.
You can bake and make dressings and sauces from any type of sunflower oil. Remember, refined sunflower oil won’t have much of its own taste, while unrefined will.
You can use sunflower oil in many recipes. The ones below don’t all specifically call for it, but sunflower oil will work nicely in them.
Sunflower Oil Substitutes
Any neutral oil such as grapeseed, canola, or vegetable oil can step in nicely for sunflower oil.