Have you ever tried to warm butter or oil in a pan, turned your back for 30 seconds, and the next thing you know your smoke alarm is going off?  Or do you have a dark spot on a pan that you swear you have scrubbed 100 times and it just never seems to go away? Well, you are not alone!

A small selection of olive oil at Eataly in New York City
A small selection of olive oil at Eataly in New York City

Up until a few weeks ago I was pretty oblivious to the type of oil I was using to cook.  It was not on purpose.  Somewhere along the way I got into the habit of using olive oil for just about everything. I was tired of buying bottles of fancy oils for a recipe then watching them turn rancid on my shelf.  I figured if I was going to buy oil, I might as well invest in one good one and make it work.

Then one night as I was standing in Whole Foods, frustrated by the seemingly endless options of olive oils and ridiculous prices, I started to read the labels. I was surprised to find many of the bottles listed smoke points, the temperature at which and oil will start to smoke.

Up until that point, I had never given smoke points a second thought.  Most articles I read describe how to pick healthy options and which ones to stay away from. I’d also heard somewhere that if you cook olive oil too high, it will break down and become toxic.

The oil I was planning to buy was an unrefined organic olive oil with a smoke point of 320°F.  Knowing that I roast most of my foods between 350-375°F, I immediately picked something else.  But it got me thinking- how many times have I cooked something with the wrong oil?  Was this the reason why I was constantly burning the bottoms of my pots and pans?

A selection oils at my local Wegman's store
A selection oils at my local Wegman’s store

I did some digging when I got home and it turns out there isn’t a one size fits all answer when cooking with oils.  Knowing how you plan to cook something, and choosing the correct oil for your dish, is something that should be taken into consideration when you are planning a meal.

It’s not an exact science.  How an oil is prepared can radically change the smoke point.  Olive oil, for example, can run from 320°F (for an unrefined variety) to 410°F ( for a refined version).  A general rule of thumb is the purer the oil, the lower the smoke point.  Additional factors, such as exposing an oil to heat for an extended period of time and the addition of food particles, also can lower smoke points.

So how do you know what to choose? Well as soon as I read about smoke points I naively assumed my stove-top was running at 500°F and this was why I was constantly burning things.  Wrong!  Turns out the closest my oven gets to 500°F is when I am broiling (which is basically grilling from the top). We don’t really cook at high temperatures all the time.  You just need to keep an eye on your pan while cooking to see when your oil starts to smoke and can adjust the temperature from there.

To help you out, I came up with the following charts for you to use as a guideline.   The first breaks down the temperature ranges for many of the common types of cooking that we do.  Obviously, each stove is different, but this will hopefully give you a starting point when choosing an oil!

Cooking Method Temperature Range
Baking 200-425°F
Roasting 300-350°F
Grilling* 300-600°F
Deep-Frying 350-375°F
Stir-Frying 350-375°F
Searing 300-350°F
Boiling** 212°F
Simmering** 180-205°F
*Grilling can go up to 800°F based on the method being used
**This is at sea-level. As elevation goes up, the boiling point temperature will go down.

The second is a pretty comprehensive list of common (and some not so common) oils and fats and their smoke points.  Not all of them are good fats (I am not saying to try them all out)!  I found it really interesting to see how they were used

Oil Name Smoke Point °F Most Common Uses
Almond Oil 420°F Stir frying and sauteing
Avocado Oil 520°F Stir frying and searing
Butter 350°F Baking
Butter (Ghee)* 375-485°F Frying and sauteing
Canola Oil (unrefined) 225°F Salad dressings
Canola Oil (refined) 400°F All-purpose oil for cooking
Coconut Oil 350°F Baking, confectionery and shortening
Corn Oil (unrefined) 320°F Salad dressings
Corn Oil (refined) 450°F Frying and in shortening
Cottonseed Oil 420°F In margarine and shortening.  Also frying
Flaxseed Oil (unrefined) 225°F Salad dressings and dips
Grapeseed Oil 420°F All-purpose oil for cooking.  Also used in salad dressings
Hazelnut Oil 430°F Baked goods, marinades and salad dressings
Lard 370°F Baking and frying
Macadamia Nut Oil 390°F Sauteing, pan frying, searing, deep frying, grilling, broiling and baking
Olive Oil- High Quality, Extra Virgin 405°F Sauteing, stir frying, baking, salad dressings, marinades
Olive Oil- Virgin 420°F Sauteing, pan frying, searing, deep frying, grilling, broiling and baking, marinades and dressings
Palm Oil 450°F Cooking, flavoring
Peanut Oil 450°F All-purpose oil for cooking.  Also frying and salad dressings
Safflower Oil (unrefined) 225°F Mayonnaise, salad dressings, and margarine
Safflower Oil (Semi-refined) 320°F Cooking, salad dressings, sauteing, low heat baking, pressure cooking
Safflower Oil (Refined) 450°F All-purpose cooking.  Also salad dressings and margarine
Sesame Oil 410°F All-purpose cooking, sauteing and salad dressings
Shortening, Vegetable 360°F Baking, frying
Soybean Oil 450°F All-purpose cooking.  Also salad dressings, margarine and shortening
Sunflower Oil 450°F All-purpose cooking.  Also salad dressings, margarine and shortening
Walnut Oil 400°F Sauteing, pan frying, searing, deep frying, grilling, broiling

I hope this helps to take some of the mystery out of choosing an oil.  It’s amazing how much information there is out there on oils and how to pick them!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *