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How to Cook with Oils: The Manifesto

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Gone are the days when the choice was between Crisco and Canola - and we're not complaining! A dazzling array of nut and seed oils have diversified the market expanding our options into mildly confusing, albeit wondrous territory. Avocados, grape and mustard seeds, walnuts, rice bran, sunflowers, cottonseeds and even hemp can be used to make awesome oils that so seamlessly provide the necessary fatty acids that every human body requires.

However, not all oils are created equal. It's no easy task to even compare oils, given the refining process, manufacturers’ methods, age and even local weather that can all have an effect on the taste and properties of these slippery substances.

One thing is certain: if you heat oil too much, it will begin to smoke, breaking down and losing flavor and nutritional value. Even worse – smoking oil generates oxygen radicals, which are harmful cancer-causing agents. It would be wisely prudent to say, you should never consume oil that has reached its “smoke point.”

Oils are used for frying, baking, cooking and sautéing, but not every oil is suited to be heated to very high temperatures. Refining oil raises its smoke point, and different methods of production can raise or lower its smokability as well. Some oils work well at high temperatures, and some should never be heated past the point of a low simmer, for instance, any unrefined oils.

What are the smoke points of different oils? This is where things get a little tricky, because every oil manufacturer claims their type of oil has the very highest smoke point and can be used in every sort of cooking imaginable, even frying, which requires a temperature of 365° F. The Olive Oil Source swears that olive oil is safe for frying, although some olive oil smokes at 350° F – which is not hot enough to fry and barely hot enough to bake.

With the vast differences of smoke points even in the same types of oil and every website out there giving out different information, your best bet is to use your best judgement. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – or cancer-causing agents. If you want to fry your food, but the oil will not get hot enough to do so without smoking, then don’t use it. Besides having a bad taste and reduced nutritional value, it will dump carcinogenic oxygen radicals into your system.

Here is a list of basic smoke points taken not from oil-promoting websites, but from Wikipedia, along with the type of cooking each oil is best for:

Oils with a high smoke points and suited to high heat (frying above 446° F):

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From the Organic Authority Files

  • Avocado- 520° F
  • Canola/Rapeseed- 470° F
  • Corn- 457° F
  • Mustard- 489° F
  • Rice Bran- 489° F
  • Safflower- 509° F
  • Soybean- 466° F

Oils with a medium smoke points and suited to medium heat (good for sautéing, baking and low-temperature frying @ 374° F)

  • Almond- 430° F
  • Cottonseed- 420° F
  • Ghee (clarified butter)- 374-482° F
  • Grape seed- 420° F
  • Palm- 448° F
  • Peanut- 448° F
  • Sesame- 446° F
  • Sunflower- 450° F

Oils with a low smoke points and suited only for very low or no heat (marinades, sauces and dressings- low simmering is usually okay and some baking as well)

  • Butter- 302° F
  • Coconut- 351° F
  • Extra Virgin Olive- 374° F
  • Flax- 225° F
  • Margarine- 302° F
  • Hemp- 330° F
  • Walnut- 400° F

Keep in mind The temperatures given above are all for refined oils. If you are using unrefined oils, the smoke point can drop by 225° F or more. 

Don't marry yourself to these temperatures, as two brands of the same oil – or even two pressings of the same brand – may have different smoke points. Many are not convinced of the danger; for example the smoke point of vegetable shortening is 350° F, but I doubt you could tell that to my grandmother who has been frying the world’s best chicken in it for the last fifty years. 

Your best bet is to use your senses to determine whether an oil is smoking. If something smells and tastes as bad as burning oil, you should not be putting it into your body. When your eyes and nose produce questionable results, use a cooking thermometer to resolve any questions in your head. Heat up your favorite brand of extra virgin olive oil (or any other!) on the stove, using the thermometer to determine the exact temperature when it starts smoking. Then you will know the smoke point and can decide whether it is suitable for frying, baking, or just drizzling over an heirloom tomato salad. At the end of the day, your healthiest option is keeping it raw.

image: James Jordan

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