Oil Smoke Points: How Hot is Too Hot?

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When using oils in the kitchen, it’s important to do your homework. You need to know how the oil is pressed so that you can be sure that the quality is high. If the oil is pressed properly, the nutrients will be undamaged and bioavailable. If not, you simply won’t get the nutrition you’re looking for.

If you are planning to cook with the oil you choose (rather than using it in a dressing or a smoothie or another cold recipe), there is another trait to consider: the oil’s smoke point.

What’s a smoke point?

What’s Cooking America defines an oil’s smoke point as: the temperature at which it gives off smoke. The smoke point of oil depends to a very large extent on its purity and age at the time of measurement. A simple rule of thumb is that the lighter the color of the oil, the higher its smoke point. When frying, it is important to choose an oil with a very high smoking point. Most foods are fried between the temperatures of 350-450 degrees Fahrenheit so it is best to choose an oil with a smoking point above 400 degrees.“ When oil reaches its smoke point it will burn quickly. An oil that has reached it’s smoke point should not be eaten.

It’s so hot, the chickens are laying hard-boiled eggs 

While you should be aware of the smoke points of the oils you cook with, you can rest assured that environmental temperature is not a factor even in the heat of summer. Flax oil, for example, has a low smoke point, but it still has to get to 225°F (107°C) before its nutrients are in danger of being damaged. Many people are concerned about damage to oils from extreme heat during shipping (for example if the bottle sits in a hot mailbox for a day or more), but it isn’t getting hot enough outside for the oils to reach their smoke points. Even with the heat wave in California right now, where temperatures outside are reaching 120°F (which can lead to temperatures in cars of 170°F or more) there is still nothing to worry about with your oils since the lowest smoke point is 225°F.

Fun fact: the more polyunsaturated fats in an oil, the lower the smoke point. In other words, oils that have high omega-3 content are typically best kept out of the frying pan. To discover more about omega-3s and why you should be eating more of them, check out my recent blog post.

I mentioned before that it is important to be sure that you are buying a high-quality oil in the first place. One reason for that is that many companies use high-temperature pressing methods that damage the nutritional value of the oils. Methods that involve a lot of friction or that make use of steam are particularly bad for this. Writers for LifeSpa warn that: “Modern cold pressing heats the oil multiple times to staggering temperatures, rendering most oils rancid. Additionally, unrefined oils are so delicate that even just one photon of daylight will trigger a chain reaction of free radical damage that creates trans fats and other by-products that experts believe to be even more harmful than trans fats!

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So which oils are safe to cook with?

Oils that have a smoke point of 350°F (177°C) and higher are usually safe for cooking with. Coconut (360°F), sesame (410°F), sunflower (450°F) and rice bran (490°F) are some excellent choices that are easily found and purchased from organic sources. Coconut oil is especially popular because it lends a nice flavor to the meal and has a very long list of health benefits. In terms of its smoke point, the Nutty Kitchen writers note that it: “is very heat stable so it makes an excellent cooking and frying oil. It has a smoke point of about 360°F (180°C). Because of its stability, it is slow to oxidize and thus resistant to rancidity, lasting up to two years due to high saturated fat content.

To be really safe, use oils with smoke points of 350-400°F at low to medium temperatures. If you want to fry at a high temperature, stick with oils that have smoke points above 400°F.

Oils with low smoke points, such as flax and pumpkin seed oil, can be enjoyed right off the spoon. You can also use them in salad dressing recipes, in smoothies or in simple, no-heat recipes, such as dips and some sauces. You can also drizzle them over hot foods after cooking. These delicious oils and have many health benefits to offer that would be lost with cooking, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t versatile additions to your pantry.  

With any food, it is important to read labels and make sure you know what you are putting into your body. Being educated about the dangers and benefits of the oils you are using can make a big difference to your overall health.

Resources:

http://whatscookingamerica.net/Information/CookingOilTypes.htm
http://www.cookthink.com/reference/29/What_is_an_oils_smoke_point
http://blog.fooducate.com/2012/12/18/heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-oils-and-their-smoke-point/
http://www.goodeatsfanpage.com/collectedinfo/oilsmokepoints.htm
http://lifespa.com/dont-use-these-oils/

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