What Is Smoke Point and Why Should We Care?
Smoke point is one of those culinary terms that’s bandied about often but almost never explained. “Smoke” makes it seem pretty serious, almost ominous, while “point” sounds rather precise. But what, exactly, is a smoke point and why should we care? Read on for everything you need to know.
What Is Smoke Point?
Smoke point, also called flash point or burning point, refers to the temperature at which cooking fats — oil, butter, lard — stop shimmering and start smoking. Different fats have different smoke points and smoke points can range from as low as 325°F to more than 500°F, but no matter the number, it’s the temperature when the fat starts to break down. This might not seem significant, but it is — and for several reasons.
Why Does Smoke Point Matter?
Smoking fat isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re searing steak or stir-frying vegetables, two instances when high heat is essential. However, most of the time, you want to stay below a fat’s smoke point, because when fat is heated past that temperature, it starts to break down, which degrades its flavor, aroma, and even nutrition.
Smoking fat also releases a substance called acrolein, along with free radicals. Acrolein is what makes your food smell and taste bitter and burnt, ruining your dinner, stinking up your kitchen, and even making your eyes water. Free radicals are chemicals associated with cell damage and linked to illness and aging. None of that sounds good — or appetizing.
What Determines Smoke Point?
Smoke point varies from fat to fat and even from manufacturer to manufacturer, but there are some general rules, as well as guides (see below) that can help you compare oils and choose which one to use when.
Unrefined, virgin, and extra-virgin fats tend to be more flavorful and more aromatic. They also tend to have lower smoke points, making them more sensitive to heat. A refined peanut oil, on the other hand, has been processed in a way that makes it more neutral, as well as sturdy enough to be heated as high as 450°F.
Refined or processed fats also tend to have a longer shelf life and be less sensitive to things like air, light, and temperature. It’s always a good idea to keep oil away from light and especially heat, which can lower its smoke point, but the extra care you might take with extra-virgin olive oil — moving it to an opaque, closed container — isn’t necessary for more processed oils like canola or peanut oil, which can be left in the clear plastic jugs they came in.
How Do I Pick the Right Oil to Use?
While it would be convenient to have one go-to oil for all your cooking needs, smoke point, as well as factors like flavor, nutrition, and price mean that which oil you use depends on how you plan to use it.
Contrary to popular belief, extra-virgin olive oil actually has a high smoke point of 410°F. In fact, the USDA recommends EVOO for deep frying (along with some other, similar oils). Extra-virgin olive oil can also be used for sautéing.
Regular olive oil, sometimes called light or refined olive oil, has been processed in a way that makes it less sensitive to heat and more neutral tasting. It has a smoke point around 465°F and can withstand high temperatures.
Coconut oil has a slightly lower smoke point, around 350°F, which makes it a good option for baking and sautéing.
Butter also has a smoke point of 350°F, so it’s another good baking and sautéing fat.
Refined canola oil and vegetable oil both come in at 400°F and are neutral in flavor, which is why they’re commonly used for deep-frying, along with baking, but also heat-free preparations like salad dressing. These are as close as you’ll get to an all-purpose oil.
Refined peanut oil is another go-to for deep-frying because it has a smoke point of 450°F and can be quite neutral in flavor — although some peanut oils are rather nutty, so keep that in mind. This is also a great oil for stir-frying, as well as searing steaks.
Other nut oils vary by nut and how they are processed — generally, the less processed, the lower the smoke point. While they’re not as delicate as something like extra-virgin olive oil, the main appeal of nut oils is often their flavor, which is a good reason to mostly use them for finishing.
Corn oil can safely be heated to 450°F before it starts to smoke and has a neutral flavor, making it a smart choice for frying and searing.
Clarified butter and ghee have a significantly higher smoke point than regular butter, about 450°F, because they’ve been heated to remove their water and milk solids. This makes them suitable for higher heat cooking.
Refined avocado oil boasts a smoke point of 520°F, making it an option for searing, sautéing, and other high-heat cooking, but because of its rich, buttery flavor, it’s also a popular finishing oil.
What If My Oil Starts Smoking?
While you generally want to avoid smoking oil, it does happen and there’s no need to panic. First, remove the pan from the heat and let it cool down. Next, smell and possibly taste the oil to see if it’s turned bitter. If so, toss it and start over. Also keep in mind that when oil hits its smoke point, that smoke point lowers. This is mostly important for oil used for deep frying. While it’s completely fine to reuse oil a few times, if it’s gotten so hot that it’s smoking, it’s better to discard it and fry with fresh oil.
Common Cooking Oils and Their Smoke Point
- Extra-virgin olive oil: 410°F
- Coconut oil: 350°F
- Butter: 350°F
- Virgin avocado oil: 350°F.
- Canola oil: 435°F
- Vegetable oil: 400°F
- Peanut oil: 450°F
- Corn oil: 410°F
- Clarified butter/ghee: 450°F
- Regular/light/refined olive oil: 465°F
- Refined avocado oil: 520°F