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Holiday Kitchen Safety: Know the Smoke Points of Cooking Oils

Sautéing, frying, and deep-fat frying are kitchen tasks associated in serving up golden, crispy foods that are the hallmarks of many holiday celebrations. Think potato pancakes, Swedish meatballs, and deep-fat fried turkeys!

But turning out seasonal fried favorites can come with risks, especially if you become distracted or aren’t aware of potential dangers. Fried choices can pose a hazard when cooking oils are heated to high temperatures—at 380 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit in many cases.

Hot grease may bubble, froth, splatter — and, in the worst case, spread flames. In fact, frying poses the greatest risk of home cooking fires, according to The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Staying safe with cooking oils

You needn’t be Scrooge-like and eat cold porridge, though. Being attentive, relying on quality oils, and keeping your kitchen clear of kids, clutter, and other distractions can go a long way to staying safe in a holiday kitchen, says Monoj K. Gupta, a member of the not-for-profit American Oil Chemist Society (AOCS) and owner of MG Edible Oil Consulting International in Seattle.

Have a look at the chart below for general guidelines on the smoke points of various cooking oils. And then read on for answers to some questions you may have about frying foods this holiday season, with tips from Gupta; food chemist Richard F. Stier, owner of Consulting Food Scientists in Sonoma CA; and AOCS member Kathy Heine, managing editor of the Society’s Inform publication.

 

What’s the biggest danger when cooking with hot oils?

When oil comes into contact with burners–gas flames or electric heating elements–it can ignite and spread through your kitchen. Water won’t help douse the fire; it vaporizes, becomes steam that expands, and may even spray hot water and oil. That’s why the NFPA says never to use water to extinguish a cooking oil fire. Instead, if the fire is limited to the pan, the agency advises using an oven mitt to slide a lid over the pan and smother the fire; or, when in doubt, get everyone out of the house and call the fire department, the NFPA says.

What does “smoke point” mean?

All oils have a smoke point, the temperature at which they exhibit smoke above the frying pan, deep-frying pot, or wok. The exact temperature at which this happens varies depending on the type of oil and how it was manufactured or refined.

The refining process is designed to remove impurities from the oil, so its compounds are more stable and less prone to potential fires (virgin and extra virgin oils are considered unrefined). Refined oils typically have a higher smoke point temperature; the higher the smoke point, the more stable the oil is for higher heat. But depending upon the exact oil type (see the accompanying chart) and the degree of refining it has been subjected to, the smoke points of cooking oils can vary by much more, Stier says.

Also, be aware that the smoke point doesn’t remain constant throughout the cooking process; it keeps dropping as you continue to fry and the oil is exposed to more heat, which breaks down or degrades it into smaller compounds so it’s more prone to smoke, says Stier. Cooking at a lower temperature will help.

What about recycling or saving oil?

Saving oil for weeks or months poses another danger since it also may cause the oil to become unstable and degrade over time—and reach its smoke point sooner. The discriminating cook also knows that the oil will oxidize and develop off-flavors and aromas, which can be passed onto the food, Stier says.

Are some oils less of a risk? 

Yes; the more refined the oil, the safer it is, because it has fewer impurities. Extra virgin olive oil, for example, is considered unrefined and, therefore, not a good choice for frying; it’s better for light sautéing or dressing a salad, says Heine. Read labels to help you make buying decisions, says Stier.

Are there signs that oil has reached a dangerous level?

Smoke coming from a frying pan or wok, or food burning, is a sure sign that the oil has become dangerous. Always use a dial thermometer enclosed in a metal case, rather than a glass thermometer, to check the temperature of your oils, says Stier.

What about deep-fat frying a turkey?

Use equipment that’s large and sturdy, don’t use too much oil (don’t overfill the pan or pot), and cook outdoors, Gupta recommends.

Remember, smoke points will ultimately vary, based on oil quality, the level of refinement, and your cooking temperature. Always cook with caution!

 


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