WHAT IS AN OIL’S SMOKE POINT AND WHY DO WE CARE?
Up until a few years ago, I cooked everything in extra virgin olive oil. Not only was I sold on its heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory omegas but as a French- and Italian-American, it's what I grew up with! While I was wary of it's low smoke point (and annoyed by the acrid taste this produces), I was unaware that it could also be a potential health hazard.
When oil is heated past its smoke point, its fats and nutrients begin breaking down. As this process happens, the oil begins to produce cancer-causing free radicals and acrolein, the chemical responsible for that off-putting taste. So if you're cooking with olive oil for its health benefits, heating it past its smoke point is actually counter-productive. Extra virgin olive oil reaches its smoke point at just 375 degrees. That's way too low if you want crispy, oven-roasted veggies or if you're frying an egg. So what's a healthy home chef to do?
The Search For A Higher Smoke Point
Here's the rub: many high smoke point oils you find at the grocery store are processed and refined. Manufacturers accomplish this through processes like bleaching, filtering, and exposing them to heat. This is not always a bad thing! Ghee, for example, is technically a processed cooking fat. That's because it's produced by heating butter until the heat-sensitive milk solids can be strained out. Canola oil, however, is another story. While manufacturers argue that it's "the healthiest oil in the world," it's full of inflammation-producing Omega-6 fatty acids and is produced by heating and mixing rapeseeds with chemical solvents, including hexane gas. Hexane is a neurotoxin derived from petroleum and crude oil, and the FDA doesn't monitor for it in food. If I'm going through the trouble to choose healthy ingredients, why would I choose THAT? And that's not even the worst part: manufactures aren't required to say how they process cooking oils on their labels.
Fortunately, the FDA does impose some labeling restrictions on cooking oils that an be helpful.
Look For These Three Terms When You're Shopping
Expeller-Pressed. This processed sounds like what it is. Fruits or seeds are placed under pressure, and the oil is then squeezed out.
Virgin. This means an oil is less refined.
Extra Virgin. Extra virgin olive oil is one of the heart healthiest oils on the planet because it. Unfortunately, it's often mislabeled. So, while the term does have meaning, it's been as watered down as the oil itself. The state of California, however, is great at ensuring its olive oils are labeled as they should be. So when shopping for EVOO, look for one that's manufactured in the Golden State. (I buy California Olive Ranch.)
...Or You Can Just Pin This Cheat Sheet
I created this handy dandy graphic to consult when you're cooking or shopping. That way, you always know which oil to use depending on your cook temperature. I included the five healthy fats I cook with most often, but I encourage you to branch out!
There are other minimally processed oils - like macadamia - that also have high smoke points. I just tend not to keep too many different kinds of oils in my pantry because I don't use them quickly enough and they go bad. But if you have a healthy, high smoke point cooking oil oil you enjoy cooking with, I'd love to hear about it!