The Best Oils for Frying Your Favorite Foods

published Dec 16, 2022
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hand holding a fried chicken drumstick
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

As far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest pleasures in life is fried food — fried calamari, vegetable tempura, and, best of all, classic fried chicken. It’s a delicate balance to achieve the perfect, satisfying crunch. You need the correct cookware, you need to maintain the proper oil temperature, and you need the right oil. So, what’s the best oil for frying?

Typically, the best oil for frying is a stable, neutral oil with a smoke point higher than 375°F. 

Oils that are heated past their smoke point (the temperature where oil starts smoking) will impart that acrid flavor and aroma associated with burnt foods. According to the USDA, oils with a high smoke point include the following:

  • Peanut, safflower, soybean oil (450°F)
  • Grape seed oil (445°F)
  • Canola oil (435°F)
  • Corn, olive, sesame seed, sunflower oil (410°F)

The smoke point of blended vegetable oils varies depending on which oils they contain, but they tend to work well for frying as well.

Peanut oils are often used in Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurants, while canola oil is favored at Japanese tempura eateries. For a neutral oil with a high smoke point, my preference is canola oil.

Some cooks, including Fran McCullough, author of The Good Fat Cookbook, swear by deep frying with animal fats like lard (374°F smoke point) and beef tallow (400°F). Fans say this natural, saturated fat imparts great flavor and makes the ingredients crispier. 

Oils That Are Better for Pan Frying

The mild and buttery refined avocado oil, which contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as oleic acid (an omega-9 fatty acid) and vitamin E, is considered the most heart-healthy oil. Its smoke point is around 500°F (unrefined avocado oil has a lower smoke point of 350°F), but it’s more expensive than regular vegetable oil. An average deep fryer requires at least 100 ounces of oil, so the cost can add up quickly. 

Likewise, you can deep-fry with extra-virgin olive oil, which also has a high smoke point of 410°F, as long as you know your oil is unrefined and not mixed with other oils. However, it’s more expensive than other vegetable oils so you may prefer to use extra-virgin olive oil as a bread dip, finishing drizzle, or dressing. It’s also better used in smaller amounts to pan-fry a piece of salmon or farm-fresh egg.

What Not to Use for Frying

Coconut oil is a saturated fat that has a light coconut taste. With a smoke point of 359°F, it’s a better choice for baking or sautéing. 

Some of the premium finishing oils, like flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and toasted sesame seed oil, have lower smoke points and are therefore not ideal for frying.

Why Temperature Matters

In simple terms, deep frying is achieved when you plunge protein or vegetables in hot oil, the moisture evaporates, and the outer layer of the ingredient dehydrates, forming a crust. For deep frying and shallow frying, oil is heated to temperatures between 350°F and 375°F. When the oil temperature is too low, you end up with a soggy, oily crust. Too high of a temperature, and your food will be burnt on the outside and undercooked on the inside.

Why the Correct Cookware Matters

Cast iron cookware (skillet, Dutch oven, wok) is the best for retaining heat, so your oil temperature won’t drop as drastically after you submerge the food into the oil. Clip on a deep-fry thermometer to your cookware and adjust the size of the flame to maintain a steady temperature. To check when the oil is ready, drop a small piece of food into the oil and watch it bubble.

A Simple Hack to Improve Your Frying Oil

Ever notice when you deep-fry food in really fresh oil that the first batch always looks a little paler than the second or third batch?

According to chef-scientist Chris Young in the YouTube video Fry Fidelity: The Science Of Fried Chicken, that’s because when the oil cooks the food, “Oil molecules break down into the natural emulsifiers, and the bubbles will abate, and that helps the oil spend more time touching the food.” And that process enables the browning process and makes fried food crispier. The more you cook with the oil, the more natural emulsifiers are created. To speed up the browning process, Young recommends adding a tablespoon of previously used oil into a pot of brand-new oil.