As they say in the meme universe, I was “today years old” when I learned that cooking with certain fats and oils at the wrong temperature can be detrimental to your health.
Like most amateur gourmands, I knew that every fat or oil had its own, specific smoke point — the temperature at which it begins to smoke while cooking (or, I guess, technically burning). I even knew that reaching the smoke point of fats or oils can produce “off” flavors. What I didn’t know, however, was that exceeding their smoke point will not only destroy their nutritional value, it will also produce toxic compounds. Out of the frying pan and into the cancer ward? Uh, no thanks.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Inflammation
When a particular oil is heated beyond its smoke point, fat molecules begin breaking down into glycerol and fatty acids. Neither is problematic on its own. Glycerol is an odorless, tasteless polyol compound that actually has some antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Moreover, most animals use some form of fatty acid for fuel. But if you keep the heat on them, the glycerol turns into acrolein.
Wait — pronounce that out loud: Ak-krO-Lee-In.
You may be asking yourself, why does acrolein sound like some bad guys from Star Trek? Because it’s straight-up evil — it can literally alter your DNA. Acrolein is known to cause all kinds of inflammatory chaos and can set you on a path toward a range of diseases, from cancer to Alzheimer’s.
Who knew burning the butter could be so sinister?
The American Heart Association has long known acrolein is a cardiovascular villain (the compound even cameos in tobacco smoke for crying out loud). But fortunately for those who love high-heat cooking, there are a variety of oils and fats that can take the heat (and stay in the kitchen!).
From EVOO to butter, plant-based oils (olive, canola, and onward) to animal fats (derived from dairy or meats), every single fat has its special number: the point of no return. The sweet spot. For our purposes, this number will be in degrees Fahrenheit – here are the five most popular arranged from highest to lowest smoke point courtesy of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center at Colorado State University.
1. Avocado Oil
Avocado oil is the high-heat champion, with a staggeringly hot smoke point of 520°F. That’s practically lava. Better yet, avocado oil is monounsaturated, which, according to the American Heart Association, means “it can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.”
2. Olive Oil
Another monounsaturated fat, the ubiquitous olive oil, is a close second, with a smoke point of 470°F — but only when it’s not “virgin” or “extra virgin,” which drops it to 420°F and 350°F degrees respectively. Why? They’re processed differently. Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of olives, whereas virgin and regular are blends of subsequent pressings that undergo additional processing. Basically, extra virgin olive oil is a “finishing oil” and the others are for cooking.
3., 4., and 5. Corn, Soybean, and Peanut Oil
In a three-way tie for third, corn, soybean, and peanut oils all have a smoke point of 450°F according to the Kendal Reagan Nutrition Center (though it’s good to keep in mind that the latter two are common allergens).
6. Sesame Seed Oil
Weighing at a relatively lowish 410°F, sesame seed oil is our sixth runner up. It’s polyunsaturated, which puts it in the “good” fat camp (meaning it’s not saturated or trans fats) when eaten in moderation.
To Ghee or Not To Ghee
Those who prefer to slicken their pans with animal byproducts should know that good old-fashioned butter generally has a low smoke point of 350°F. That said, clarified butter, a.k.a., ghee, a.k.a. butter with all of the milk solids and water removed, can reach up to 485°F, depending on its relative purity.
It bears mention that clarified butter and ghee are similar yet distinct, despite the tendency – especially with the recent popularity of ghee – for folks to tend to use the terms interchangeably.
Unlike clarified butter, ghee is lightly browned, resulting in a nuttier, richer flavor. Moreover, ghee is shelf-stable at room temperature (thanks to its lack of milk solids, which lead butter to spoil) and it’s more digestible for the lactose intolerant. This super butter is a natural for sautéing, and if you can find ghee made from grass-fed cows, you will score bonus nutrition and flavor points along the way. That said, it’s still saturated fat, which means it stands a chance of raising blood cholesterol levels.
Chewing the Fat
So what fat or oil should you use? Obviously, that’s dependent on the needs of your particular recipe. However – and this is the good news, especially when it comes to vegetables – the old Mediterranean Diet standby olive oil remains a standout. Sautéing veggies in olive oil increases their antioxidant capacity, according to a 2015 Food Chemistry study with the catchy title “Phenols and the antioxidant capacity of Mediterranean vegetables prepared with extra virgin olive oil using different domestic cooking techniques.”
But what about acrolein resulting from overheating extra virgin olive oil — the aforementioned Star Trek enemy?
This is kind of a big deal, because for years, people have believed the notion that cooking with olive oil was terrible at higher temperatures in the 400-500 degree range. It turns out that, as with most commonly held beliefs, clarification is in order.
We consulted our Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Laura Klein, who is a trained cook, about the whole smoky matter.
“Smoke points are hit quite often when cooking or sautéeing food. In culinary school, we were taught it’s the point at which you start to see the fat or oil in the pan literally start to smoke,” says Laura. She notes: “This happens right after the oil starts to shimmer. When the oil starts to shimmer, it’s at this point you should add food to the pan, to stop the oil from reaching its smoke point.”
Getting even more nerdy about food is what we live for, so here it goes. That olive-oil-is-dangerous-at-high-heat belief? Yes and no. Extra virgin olive oil is far more delicate than virgin olive oil; the latter can stand higher heat. So it’s not entirely incorrect to repeat the common refrain about not frying with olive oil. But it’s not entirely correct, either.
Having said that, let’s revisit our opening point: We can all stop worrying about smoke points. Why? Because it’s the shimmer, stupid. (Pardon us for parroting the old K.I.S.S. principle, but it’s appropriate here.) It’s not that smoke points aren’t a thing; they are absolutely, comprehensively a thing. It’s that we are collectively over-complicating something in the interest of health that can be simply, easily, effortlessly managed with one very simple technique:
Mind the shimmer.
When the fat shimmers, you must either immediately reduce the heat or add a food. That’s it. No chemistry degree, thermometer, or olive oil debate required. It’s what pro cooks know and the rest of us can rely on.
Unless you’re practically playing with fire, there won’t be a chemical death ray beamed at your fried eggplant — or you. While it’s important to choose the right fats for health and flavor, it’s just as important to be mindful of that shining moment when fat meets food.
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