Smoke point is an important factor to take into account when selecting a cooking oil, but what exactly is it, why does it matter and how does it relate to an oil's quality or safety? Read on to find out.
What Is Smoke Point?Smoke point (sometimes called flash point) is the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke and oxidize (break down into free fatty acids). When an oil starts to smoke it will impart a burnt, bitter flavor thanks to a substance released called acrolein. During this process, harmful compounds called polar compounds may also be released as a byproduct of the breakdown of that oil as it’s exposed to heat. These compounds have been linked to cellular damage thought to lead to health issues like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and more.
Smoke Points of Common Cooking OilsAvocado Oil – 520˚F
Refined Vegetable Oil – 468˚F
Safflower Oil – 450˚F
Sunflower Oil – 450˚F
Peanut Oil – 450˚F
Corn Oil – 440˚F
Canola Oil – 400˚F
Grapeseed – 400˚F
Virgin Olive Oil – 391˚F
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil – 375˚F
Extra-Virgin Coconut Oil – 350˚F
Sesame Oil – 350˚F
Walnut Oil – 320˚F
Flaxseed Oil – 225˚F
Why Smoke Point MattersTaste is an important reason you should think about an oil’s smoke point when deciding which one to choose for a particular recipe. Think about the desired flavor and texture of the dish you’re using it for—do you need an oil that’s neutral or flavorful? How long are you going to be cooking that dish for and at what temperature? What method will you be using? While a little smoke may be inevitable to a certain extent, choosing the right oil can prevent you from ruining the taste and texture of your meal.
For example, oils with a high smoke point, such as avocado, sunflower and light/refined olive oil, are good for searing, browning or deep-frying. Oils with a medium-high smoke point, like canola, grapeseed, olive oil or peanut, are well suited for baking or stir-frying. Medium smoke point oils like corn, sesame, soy beans and virgin coconut are good for sauces and light sautéing. "No-heat" oils like walnut and flaxseed are best for making dips and marinades.
Smoke Point and Oil Quality or SafetyWhile knowing an oil’s smoke point is important for determining which oil to choose for a particular recipe or cooking method, it’s not a reliable marker of quality or safety.
It’s long been debated whether smoke point is a crucial factor in determining an oil’s safety and stability, but a growing body of research, including a 2018 study that compared a variety of commercial cooking oils showed that actually, the best predictors of an oil’s stability and safety were its oxidative stability, amount of polyunsaturated fats (which are less stable than monounsaturated fats) and level of refining. The tl;dr takeaway is that yes, you can use olive oil for high-heat cooking!
Nicola Riske, an olive oil sommelier and educator based in New York City and Madrid, explains, "Knowing your oil's smoke point range is always a good idea, however it should not be the only defining factor when selecting an oil. What one should consider is the oil's oxidative stability, which is heavily determined by the number of antioxidants, the types of fats and level of refinement of the oil (how the oil has been processed). The capacity for an oil to resist oxidation is the best indicator as to how the oil will perform at high temperatures. Oils which are unrefined, low in polyunsaturated fats and high in antioxidants, such as extra-virgin olive oil, are an excellent choice in this case."
Jacqui Plozza is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian for The Olive Wellness Institute in Australia. She says, "The method of extracting the oil from its source is a key marker of quality. Naturally produced oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil and avocado oil are higher in quality and flavor than refined oils . . . because they are naturally extracted, undergoing minimal processing and therefore retaining maximum nutrients and flavor components from the fruit or seed."
Plozza adds, "Refining an oil involves high heat, high pressure and chemicals in order to extract the oil. So refined oils have already been exposed to heat before the cooking process and are essentially primed to break down more readily. Research continues to show that the more refined and processed an oil is, the more harmful to our health it has the potential to be."