For Optimal Browning, Heat Oil Until It Just Starts Smoking, Not Shimmering

You may have noticed that many meaty recipes call for heating cooking oil until it begins to smoke. It may take a few minutes longer to get it that hot, but it turns out it's a completely necessary step, and that shimmering oil just won't cut it.

Photo by Taryn.

To see if there were any huge differences in food cooked in shimmering oil versus food cooked in oil that had reached its smoke point, Cook's Illustrated pan-fried a couple of steaks:

We cooked two sirloin strip steaks in identical 30cm skillets. For one steak, we heated 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil until shimmering, which took about 2 minutes. In the other pan, we heated 1 tablespoon of oil until it reached the smoke point, which took 6 minutes. We cooked both steaks until well browned on both sides.

Not only did the steak prepared in smoking oil cook more quickly than the one prepared in shimmering oil (six minutes versus 10), it also browned more evenly and had a smaller region of overcooked, grey meat.

This isn't particularly startling, as it makes sense that hotter oil would cook food more quickly, but the difference in temperature may be larger than you think. Shimmering oil only reaches about 135°C, whereas smoking vegetable oil is around 200°C and this difference can greatly affect the outcome of your meal. If you're worried about burning you oil, just relax, oil that has just reached its smoke point is hard to miss.

According to C.I., "you'll see multiple wisps rising from the pan," so hang out and don't add your food until you spot them.

Science: Shimmer and Smoke [Cook's Illustrated]


    Heating oil to its smoke point releases carcinogens. Bad idea.


    When oil reaches its smoke point it effectively becomes a trans fat, or bad fat. Using a plant based oil with a high smoke point such as coconut, sesame or macadamia oil will be hot enough without smoking and also maintain its healthy properties. Olive oil should be served cold, as for flaxseed oil.

    Skip both steps and oil brush the steak directly.
    You still heat up the (empty) pan until it's smoking but you will get a much better result!

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