When choosing a fat or oil to cook with, the most important temperature to consider is the smoke point. Well before a cooking fat or oil reaches its boiling point, it will begin to smoke. That can result in food that tastes burnt, even if it looks perfectly fine. Whether you're cooking with coconut oil, ghee, olive oil, or any other oil, knowing its smoke point is one key to great tasting food.
The Smoke Point
As the name alludes, the smoking point is the temperature at which the fat or oil begins to smoke. Smoking is evidence of the fat's breakdown due to heat and can create a very off-putting smell and flavor. To avoid that burnt taste (and smell in your kitchen), any oil you choose should be able to handle the amount of heat required for the application. Deep-frying, for instance, requires an oil that can reach 375 F before it begins to smoke (though higher is better).
The smoke point for cooking oils varies greatly. It depends on the components, origin, and level of refinement for that particular oil. The smoke point tends to increase as free fatty acid content decreases and the level of refinement increases. Additionally, the act of heating oil produces more free fatty acid which, in turn, lowers the smoke point. This drives the science behind the cooking rule that you should not use the same oil to deep-fry more than twice.
Smoking Points of Cooking Fats & Oils
|Fat/Oil||Smoke Point (F)||Smoke Point (C)|
|Avocado oil||570 F||271 C|
|Butter||350 F||177 C|
|Canola oil (refined)||400 F||204 C|
|Coconut oil (extra virgin)||350 F||177 C|
|Coconut oil (refined)||450 F||232 C|
|Corn oil||440 F||227 C|
|Flaxseed oil||225 F||107 C|
|Ghee (clarified butter)||485 F||252 C|
|Lard||370 F||188 C|
|Olive oil (extra virgin)||375 F||191 C|
|Olive oil (virgin)||391 F||199 C|
|Olive oil (extra light)||468 F||242 C|
|Peanut oil||450 F||232 C|
|Sesame oil (unrefined)||350 F||177 C|
|Soybean oil (refined)||460 F||238 C|
|Vegetable oil||400 F||205 C|
|Vegetable shortening||360 F||182 C|
Which Oil to Use?
When it comes to choosing the best cooking oil for your recipe, there are several factors to consider. Among the most important are taste, nutritional value, and smoke point. For many cooks, the taste and flavor of an oil is the primary factor in their selection. After all, good tasting food is generally the goal.
The nutritional value (or lack thereof) of certain oils is an ongoing discussion. It has brought previously unfamiliar oils like coconut oil to the forefront of home cook’s pantries. But in addition to flavor and nutritional value, a cook must always consider the preparation of the food, which requires attention to the smoke point of the oil. For instance, the delicate flavor of unrefined almond oil can be ruined by heat, making that a better choice for cold dishes (refined almond oil's smoke point is 420 F and okay for cooking). The high smoke point of coconut oil, on the other hand, makes it a favorite for stir-frying.
As a general rule, when frying foods, it is important to choose an oil with a very high smoking point. Most foods are fried between the temperatures of 350 F and 450 F so it is best to choose an oil with a smoking point above 400 F. Fats and oils with lower smoking points, like butter and olive oil, are best suited for lower temperature cooking methods such as sautéing.