Oils, which are considered fats, are an integral part of cooking. They appear in everything from salad dressings to marinades, and are especially useful for searing, frying, grilling, or sautéing protein. But fats and oils are not one-size-fits-all.
Oils are a product of an extraction and pressing process. Oil comes from seeds and nuts, like sunflowers, almonds, walnuts, olives, avocados, coconuts, and even rice bran. Each type of oil has its own chemical composition, which means some oils are better suited for salads, while others will help you achieve that perfect sear on a steak. One of the most important factors to consider when choosing your cooking oil is its smoke point.
What Is an Oil Smoke Point?
The smoke point of oil is the temperature at which it stops shimmering and starts smoking. The smoke point is also called the burning point of oil and can range from relatively low 160 °C to very high 271 °C
Why Is Oil Smoke Point Important?
Smoking oil isn’t always a problem: there are times when it’s inevitable, such as when you’re stir-frying in an extremely hot wok. Typically, however, smoking is a sign that your oil is breaking down.
When oils break down, they can release chemicals that give food an undesirable burnt or bitter flavor, as well as free radicals that can harm the body. Before using any oil, make sure that its smoke point can handle the cooking method you plan to use.
Chart of Oil Smoke Points
Refer to the chart below as a reference for the smoke points of common cooking oils.
How to Choose the Right Cooking Oil
When you enter a market, the options for oils seem endless. They are not all interchangeable, and some choices might even be inappropriate, depending on the dish you’re cooking. Beyond a smoke point, consider these three primary cooking oil characteristics the next time you reach for a bottle or can.
- Flavorful vs. neutral oil. Many oils also impart their own distinct flavors. Sometimes, this is a desirable quality—for example, sesame oil imparts a distinctly Asian flavor to dishes. Walnut oil, virgin coconut oil, and hemp seed oil each impart a strong, savory flavor of their own. If you are making a salad or a low-heat dish, experiment with non-neutral oils to see which flavors suit you best. In other cases, extra flavor in the pan will muddle the final dish’s composition and harmony. In these cases, opt for neutral oils like peanut oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil, or corn oil. In addition to their flavor difference, neutral oils also tend to have higher smoke points, making them suitable for frying.
- Unrefined vs. refined oil. After oils are extracted or pressed, they can either be bottled immediately or refined and processed. Oils left in their natural state are labeled as unrefined, cold-pressed, raw, virgin, or unrefined. These oils tend to retain flavors, as well as beneficial minerals, nutrients, and enzymes. However, unrefined oils tend to have lower smoke points and can turn rancid on the shelf, so they’re best used for very low heat cooking or raw applications like salad dressings or finishing drizzles. Meanwhile, refined oils are thoroughly processed through filtering bleaching, or heating to remove the volatile compounds that break down in virgin oils. The resulting product offers a neutral taste, long shelf life, and high smoke point.
- Omega-6 vs. Omega-3 fatty acids. Fat is not necessarily a bad thing: in fact, certain fatty acids, including Omega-9 and Omega-3 fatty acids, are healthy for the human body. Oils high in these beneficial fatty acids include avocado oil, flaxseed oil, and extra virgin olive oil. On the other end of the spectrum are Omega-6 fatty acids, which can cause inflammation in the human body. Oils high in Omega-6 (like almond oil) should be consumed in smaller quantities.
- Saturated vs. unsaturated fats. Saturated fats are commonly found in meat, cheese, butter, and many processed foods. Saturated fats should be used sparingly. Conversely, unsaturated or monounsaturated fats, commonly found in nuts and seeds, are much better for you. In general, oils that are liquid at room temperature contain more unsaturated fat, making them a healthier overall choice than products like butter or lard, which contain more saturated fat.