Cooking with Oils and Fats 101: Understanding the Smoke Point
Many, many years ago when I first started cooking, I thought all cooking oils or fats were the same. Whether it was good old fashioned lard, vegetable oil or olive oil, it really didn’t matter. How wrong I was! As I started to learn basic ‘Le Technique’ and the different methods of cooking, I realized that different oils and fats have different uses in the kitchen.
Each type of oil or fat can impart a different flavor and enhance, or distract, from a dish. And each have a different use for cooking depending on how you’re cooking (i.e. sautéing, frying, broiling, baking). Butter, for example, is an excellent fat that really adds a lot of flavor to dishes as you’re cooking, and it is great for light sautéing or quickly searing. However, it has low smoke point (around 325°F) and if you cook with it long on high heat, it can quickly burst into smoke and make anything taste acrid.
Ghee, which is essentially clarified butter with the milk solids removed, is much more versatile for cooking and brings a light nutty flavor to dishes. It is great for sautéing foods on high heat as it’s smoke point is around 450°F. Olive oil, peanut oil and canola oil are all great to use, but will start billowing smoke at different temperatures if taken past their smoke point.
Which brings me to the key lesson I want to share you. When it comes to different cooking methods, one of the most important things to keep in mind is knowing the smoke point of the oil or fat you are using. Once it starts to really smoke, the oil begins to burn, breaks down and releases free radicals and other toxins. And, if that’s happened to you, you know there’s nothing like that bitter, acrid taste of burnt oil or fat! Not to mention, a room filled with smoke – or worse, fire!
I should point out that a number of factors can impact the temperature at which oils begin to smoke. The older the oil is, the lower the smoke point. Also, depending on how refined the oil is, the smoke point can vary considerably. For example, extra virgin olive oil can begin to smoke around 325°F, but light (refined) olive oil can be used up to 465°F.
As a guide, I’ve put together the table below to help understand some popular oils or fats and their ‘point of no return.’ Feel free to print the table out or save it to your phone as a pic and use it as a handy reference when cooking. And also, please feel free to share it with your family and friends! 🙂