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Culinary Arts

Cooking Oils and Smoke Points: What to Know and How to Choose

Written by MasterClass

Jan 17, 2019 • 4 min read

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.

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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.

How can you discern which oils to use in your cooking? Review the following factors to decide on your cooking oil.

  • Smoke point
  • Flavor
  • Refinement
  • Health benefits

What Is a Smoke Point?

The smoke point is the temperature at which an oil stops shimmering and starts, yes, smoking. It is alternatively called the burning point.

Smoke point can range from low (325 degrees Fahrenheit) to high (510 degrees Fahrenheit).

Why Is Oil Smoke Point Important?

Before cooking with any oil, it’s good to know its smoke point.

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. But smoke can be a sign that the oil is breaking down. And when oils break down, they can release chemicals that give food an undesirable burnt or bitter flavor, or free radicals that can harm the body.

Refer to the chart below as reference.

Oil Smoke Point Chart

Smoke Point Chart

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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.

Besides smoke point, consider these three primary factors the next time you reach for a bottle or can.

1) Flavor versus Neutral

Butter makes everything taste better, of course. But why? That’s because fats—and oils—break down in a way that allows other seasonings like herbs and spices, as well as aromatics like garlic, to absorb into the cooking liquid, for a richer flavor and smoother mouthfeel.

Some oils also impart their own distinct flavors. Sometimes, this is a desirable quality (for example, sesame oil is uniquely tied to Asian cuisine) while other times, an extra flavor in the pan would convolute the final dish’s composition and harmony.

If you are making a salad or a low-heat dish, experiment with non-neutral oils to see which flavors suit you best. Walnut oil, coconut oil, and sesame oil each impart a strong, savory flavor of their own. For high-heat meals that involve deep-frying or searing, however, opt for neutral oils with smoke points over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, like peanut oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, safflower oil, or corn oil.

2) Unrefined versus Refined

Oil is a result of machine extraction and pressing. From there, it can either be immediately bottled or go through further processing.

Unrefined

When an oil is pressed then immediately bottled, it is left in its natural or unrefined state. These oils are labeled as cold-pressed, raw, virgin, or unrefined in markets. The beneficial minerals, nutrients, and enzymes unrefined oils possess, however, are prone to breaking down and going rancid at higher heat, so these oils are best kept for finishing drizzles, salad dressings, or very low heat cooking.

Refined

Refined oils are a result of extreme processing, after an oil is already extracted and pressed. This type of additional processing can include bleaching, heating at high temperatures, and filtering, to remove the compounds that easily break down. The remaining oil comes out neutral, with a high smoke point and longer shelf life. Refined oils are what you want to reach for when deep-frying or cooking at other high heats.

3) Health Benefits

Fat is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, the right types of fatty acids are often good for the human body, acting as anti-inflammatory agents, promoting healthy cell growth, and decreasing risk of heart attack or stroke.

Omegas

Most oils are balanced with Omega-6 fatty acids, however an oil with too much Omega-6 (like almond oil) can cause inflammation in the human body. These oils tend to have higher smoke points and are approved for consumption in small quantities.

Unrefined oils with lower smoke points tend to be richer in Omega-3 fatty acids, the good type of fat. Omega-9 is also a good fat, and appears in oils with both high and low smoke points, like extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil.

Unsaturated versus saturated fats

Meat, cheese, and butter features saturated fats, which have long been thought to be linked to heart disease and other ailments. Conversely, nuts and seeds feature unsaturated or monounsaturated fats, which are considered helpful to lowering cholesterol and reducing blood clots. Oils, while equally high in fat content, are generally believed to be a healthier overall choice over butter or lard.

Recipes to Better Understand Oil Smoke Points

Want to experiment with different oils and smoke points? Try the following recipes from Chef Thomas Keller’s MasterClass:

Chicken paillard
Fried chicken
Grilling on the hibachi