Regardless of whether you’re a beginner or advanced cook, it’s important to understand the smoke point of oils and fats. This is essential for preventing kitchen fires and burned meals. So what is a smoke point, and why does it matter?
I’ll never forget the first time I tried searing a steak at home. It… didn’t go well. I was using Julia Child’s instructions from Mastering The Art of French Cooking, which said to sear the steak in butter. So that’s what I did, and I practically set the kitchen on fire. I felt like an idiot. In retrospect, I now realize that Julia meant clarified butter, which has a much higher smoke point than regular butter. Had I been familiar with the smoke point of oils, dinner would have tasted so much better that night.
I think we’ve all experienced that moment of panic in the kitchen where the smoke alarm suddenly goes off. One of the biggest causes of a smoky kitchen is using the wrong type of oil for high-heat cooking.
Note: I’m going to use the word oil to reference both oils and fats since they’re being used for the same purpose.
What Is a Smoke Point?
A smoke point is the temperature at which an oil begins to (you guessed it) smoke. As the temperature of the oil rises, it begins to break down into free fatty acids. When those fatty acids break down, they produce smoke and release a substance called acrolein, which gives food a bitter, scorched flavor.
Smoke points vary widely, but every type of oil will begin to smoke when overheated. Aside from setting off your smoke detector and imparting some not-so-tasty flavors to your food, overheated oils can catch on fire if they reach a certain temperature, so knowing your smoke points is truly a matter of kitchen safety.
Smoke Point Index
When selecting an oil or fat, you want to think about how long it will be heated for and how intense that heat will become. Next, consult the index below to see the maximum temperature that each oil can handle; this will help you find the right match for the dish you’re preparing. I’ve also noted whether or not the oil has a neutral flavor, as well as its most suitable cooking applications.
|Fat/Oil||Smoke Point||Neutral?||Common Uses|
|Avocado Oil||375-400°F/190-205°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Bacon Fat||400°F/250°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry|
|Beef Tallow||400°F/250°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, deep-fry|
|Butter||350°F/175°C||No||Sauté, quick pan-fry, bake, roast|
|Canola Oil||400°F/205°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, stir-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Chicken Fat||375°F/190°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, deep-fry|
|Clarified Butter||450°F/230°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, grill, bake, roast|
|Corn Oil||450°F/230°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Coconut Oil||350°F/175°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast|
|Duck Fat||375°F/190°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, deep-fry|
|Extra Virgin Olive Oil||325-375°F/165-190°C||No||Sauté, bake|
|Grapeseed Oil||390°F/195°C||Yes||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast|
|Lard||370°F/185°C||No||Sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, deep-fry|
|Margarine||410-430°F (210-221°C)||No||Sauté, stir-fry, roast|
|Olive Oil (regular)||465°F/240°C||Yes||Sauté, pan-fry, grill, bake, roast|
|Peanut Oil||450°F/230°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Rice Bran Oil||490°F/260°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Safflower Oil||510°F/265°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Soybean Oil||450°F/230°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Sesame Oil||350-410°F/175-210°C||No||Sauté, stir-fry|
|Sunflower Oil||440°F/225°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Vegetable Oil||400-450°F/205-230°C||Yes||Sear, sauté, pan-fry, stir-fry, bake, roast, grill, deep-fry|
|Vegetable Shortening||360°F/180°C||Yes||Bake, sauté|
Which Oil to Use?
When choosing an oil for a particular dish, you’ll want to take two factors into account:
- What temperature the food will reach while cooking.
- What you want the final product to taste like.
Some options (like coconut oil, sesame seed oil, and duck fat) impart a specific flavor into a dish, while others (like grapeseed, canola or peanut oil) are neutral. Once you’ve determined your flavor profile, choose an oil that can take the heat using the index.
The right type of oil will vary by recipe; a strong-flavored option like coconut oil may be perfect for coconut shrimp or Thai curry, but you don’t want to use it if you’re making Beef Stroganoff.
How to Use High Smoke Point Oils
For high-heat cooking, you always want to use an oil with a smoke point of around or above 400°F.
Here are four common high-heat cooking techniques:
Nothing adds flavor and texture to meat quite like a good sear, but this is also the moment when many steaks can potentially burn. When searing, the meat is rapidly exposed to a very hot pan to create a caramelized exterior crust with tons of flavor.
Choose a neutral oil like grapeseed (my favorite) or canola, and heat it in a pan until it just barely starts to smoke. Or, for a fat that’s not exactly neutral-flavored but works with almost everything, I highly recommend clarified butter. It gives seared meats a rich, restaurant-quality flavor.
Tip: If you’re worried about your fat or oil reaching its smoke point, remember something that might elude you in a moment of panic: you can always remove the pan from the heat to cool it down before continuing. You control the heat.
The heat needed for sautéing isn’t quite as intense as searing, so you can be a bit more flexible in your choice of oil or fat. Extra virgin olive oil and other options with mid-range smoke points are all good choices for sautéed dishes, so select one that best suits the flavor profile of your recipe.
For a successful sauté, heat a small amount of oil in a pan until it begins to shimmer, and then add your ingredients.
Stir-frying uses hot oil to brown ingredients while retaining a fresh texture, so you need to be able to cook fast at a very high temperature. Choose an oil with a very high smoke point, like peanut or safflower, for stir-fried dishes.
Deep-fried dishes can be daunting because you need to keep your oil consistently hot as cold ingredients are dropped into the fryer. For this reason, it’s important to keep a kitchen thermometer on hand and track your oil temperature closely.
When deep-frying, choose a neutral-flavored oil with a high smoke point and make sure it can safely be heated to at least 50°F above your intended frying temperature. This way, you can start with a bit of extra heat to combat any temperature drops.
How to Tell When Oil Is Hot
Cold oil will absorb into raw ingredients, potentially creating a greasy texture as well as the need for additional oil, so it’s important to bring it to temperature before you start cooking. So how do you know if your oil is hot enough to start cooking?
If you’re using stainless steel or cast iron cookware, you can heat the pan before adding the oil (Note: I do not recommend high-heat cooking in nonstick cookware). You can technically heat the pan and oil together, but it’s harder to tell how much you need since oils and fats thin out once the pan is hot. Here are a few indicators that you’re ready for high-heat cooking:
- The oil should flow smoothly and quickly coat the surface of the pan as you swirl it around.
- The surface of the oil should shimmer or glisten.
- Small amounts of liquid food sizzle immediately when added to the pan (you can test this by carefully adding a drop of water, or a small piece of something you’re about to cook, like an onion.)