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Cooking Oil: So hot it’s smokin’

That's right, I'm talkin' to YOU.

So it occurs to me that you might not be completely clear on smoke points for cooking oils, which can not only be dangerous from a flash point perspective, but also in terms of the havoc a pan full of flaming oil can wreack when you’re trying to get a damned meal on the table without burning down the house. Pardon me if you already know this stuff. Perhaps you’d like to revisit an earlier post or contemplate the baffling appeal of Erik Estrada while the rest of us discuss it.

Here we go. Cooking oils will begin to smoke at different temperatures. You don’t want oils to smoke. TV cooks may tell you that the oil in a pan needs to be on the verge of smoking, but I have never been able to pull back or avoid a conflagration once I’m that close to the edge. Too tempting. “Just a little higher, baby. Just two or three degrees more. C’mon. C’MON!” And before you can say “Freeze! LAPD!”  the smoke detector is screaming, the pan’s on fire and your eyebrows are gone.

For an all-inclusive list of oils and their smoke points, check Wikipedia. It’s confusing, but complete.

For those of you with limited attention spans, these are my rough guidelines. All temps are approximate and in Fahrenheit. I have no idea what Celsius equivalents are, and I don’t care.

  • As a rule the more refined the oil is, the more heat it can take and the milder its flavor. There are exceptions, but I’m not going to get into them here. I just don’t get that deep.
  • Lowest smoke points are butter (350 degrees), lard (360-400) and most unrefined oils.
  • Generally olive oil (365-400 or so) can take more heat, but it varies according to purity and the amount of refining.
  • Other high-heat, refined oils are grapeseed (420-485), canola (400-435), sesame (410-450), peanut (440-450), corn (410-450), avocado (520) and vegetable.

If you want to sere something, use a high heat oil. To add butter flavor, mix butter with an oil that has a higher tolerance, but be careful of flavors – for example dark (or toasted) sesame oil can add a strong flavor, while corn oil has very little taste.

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