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Jul 28, 2012 07:54 AM

Question about cooking oil smoke point

So for a while I've been wondering how people cook steaks on high heat with olive oil.

As you can see, there is smoke originating from the olive oil at 2:05. I didn't realize it until I watched the video again AFTER I set the fire alarm at my dorm due to poor ventilation lol. Initially I thought the smoke was from the rub I put, but I tested with just the olive oil and steak, and it still smoked. I'm pretty sure it was from the oil because of the nasty scent.

I'm a bit confused right now because I looked at other videos and recipes, and most of them use olive oil for steaks. Even from Ramsay Gordon, he says, "Get the pan nice and hot, then add the oil (he doesn't use olive oil, but that's not the point). Wait for the oil to heat up, it should just start to smoke before adding the steak." It should just start to smoke before adding the steak?! What?

I guess my main problem is that either I can't distinguish smoke from an okay-level of smoke (if that's possible), or these chefs do not care about smoke points of cooking oils (again, if that's even possible considering they're considered "chefs" after all). Or something else. Can somebody explain?

I should also note that I'm new to cooking, and any advice will be helpful.

Thanks in advance.

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  1. The smoke point of olive oil is relatively high, 400 degrees or so. A restaurant steak is seared at a fairly high temperature (500 degrees or more), so you briefly exceed the smoke point. The point of searing is to briefly expose the steak surfaces to very high heat to promote a chemical reaction (maillard reaction) without cooking the interior. So it's done for the briefest period until you achieve the color change that indicates you've reached the right point. Then it's finished in a lower-temperature oven to get the meat to its desired doneness (measured by interior temp).

    You can get the same reaction at a lower temperature but then you need to do it for a longer time which then heats the meat's interior also leading to a drier, chewier steak. So the quick sear at high heat and slower finishing at low heat is optimal for a tender, flavorful steak.

    1. In my opinion, for most home cooks, there isn't an okay-level of smoke.

      This is an example, I don't know the exact numbers. A stove on high can heat a pan to 800 degrees. Oil will smoke at 400 and will burn at 600. If you do not turn down the heat, what do you think will happen. In addition to smoke/fire unless you have cookware designed for high heat, you will damage the finish of the pan and or warp it. If you have commercial duty cookware and a commercial stove, and a commercial venting system, and a crew to clean up then go high heat all the way all day. Oil will turn to "tar" when subjected to high heat, will stick to your pan, inside and out, will start as a tan colored coating,

      For your steak, warm the pan to ~250 (using med or med high), put a drop of water in the pan, it should dance. Then add your oil, (after the drop of water has evaporated) when the oil shimmers (waves across the top) add your steak, then watch/smell/listen and adjust the heat downward/move the pan off the heat. With experience, you will be able to tell how hot the pan is by the way the oil acts in the pan, you want the oil to spead rapidly across the pan. The pan used must be able to take the high heat, use thin stainless and you will warp the pan and burn the steak, use high heat with non stick and the coating will burn off.

      Emeril used to pull the knob off of his stove, show it to the camera and point out that the knob has a medium setting. There is a lot of cookware whose instructions caution against using high heat.

      I recommend watching America's Test Country or Good Eats, both shows explain why they pick the cut of meat, why they used certain seasonings and why they used a certain cooking method.

      Any of your videos show finishing a steak in the oven?

      Find a restaurant supply store and look around, no advertising, no celebrity chef endoresements, yet all commercial kitchens use those pans.

      1. Adding the room temperature steak to the pan instantly lowers the temperature of the pan and oil back below the smoke point.

        Also be aware that the olive oil being used is almost certainly not extra virgin. It is refined and filtered so the smoke point is at 400 °F.

        1. Refined olive oil can have a smoke point north of 450. EVOO typically has a smoke point significantly lower than that. Note that the meat itself will smoke somewhat in a pan heated above 400.

          I disagree with the above advice that home cooks shouldn't accept a little smoke when searing, that it's unsafe. If you're searing properly, a little bit of smoke is inevitable and a fire is highly unlikely. Being comfortable with high heat techniques is one thing that often separates professionals from home cooks, but there's no reason most home cooks can't train themselves to use high heat well. OTOH, if you're working around extremely sensitive smoke alarms that you can't temporarily disable (such as in a dorm or some apartments), then high heat searing might just not be for you. You could still brown more gently at lower temperature, use a broiler, grill outside, char with a blowtorch, etc.

          There are two schools of thought for searing. One is just to get a dry pan very hot and only brushing the steak (or whatever) with oil. For this you'd use a pan that can take the high heat - cast iron is popular. In most home kitchens, there is only so hot you can get a pan anyhow. Once the oiled steak/whatever hits the pan, there will be smoke.

          The other school of thought is to oil the pan while preheating and to use the smoke point of the oil as a kind of gauge to tell you how hot the pan is. You'd use an oil with a fairly high smoke point and wait until you see the faintest hints of smoke before adding the meat/whatever. The meat will bring the temp of the pan down and there will be no real risk of a fire. Additionally, you can use a little more oil, which conducts heat more effectively into the meat, and can compensate for the pan possibly being a little cooler than in the other method. The smoke point of your oil dictates temperature - something like refined safflower oil would use a temp north of 500, while EVOO would start to smoke at a much lower temperature and wouldn't be such a great choice. For this method, you could also use a thick-ish aluminum or steel pan rather than cast iron if that's what you have.

          Here is a link to the smoking points of various common and not-so-common oils:

          3 Replies
          1. re: cowboyardee

            Thanks. That's very informative. But (I should have mentioned this earlier) I'm not only worried about the smoke and its effect on the fire alarm. I'm actually more worried about my health from the smoke. You mentioned the option of oiling the pan while preheating until some smoke beings to appear. Would it make much of a difference if I heat the pan a notch below the smoke point to completely avoid the smoke? In other words, is that faint hint of smoke really necessary to cook optimally?

            1. re: billy5000

              Without a range hood, I would minimize smoke whether the cooking is optimal or not. It's not just a matter of health, but of keeping your place clean.

              1. re: billy5000

                The smoke from the oil just reaching its smoking point is minimal, barely visible, whether or not you use a hood. And you can still sear in a pan with oil that's close to its smoking point but hasn't quite gotten there yet (though temperature in the pan is slightly harder to gauge). That's the good news.

                The bad news is that the meat itself will soon generate a lot of smoke if you're cooking in that higher temperature range. Even if you use an oil with a high smoke point and get it close but not quite all the way to its smoking point before adding the meat - it's still gonna smoke once the meat hits the pan. The meat's 'smoke point' is lower than that of some oils. Nature of the beast with high heat cooking.

                A high quality ventilation hood is ideal and would keep smoke to a minimum. If you don't have that, it can depend on how your kitchen is set up. Creative solutions might or might not work. I have a big screen door very close to my stove and I can set up a fan to blow across the stove and out the door, keeping smoke in my house to a minimum, though it doesn't keep the kitchen 100% smoke-free.

                If your goal is to avoid all smoke (and you don't have a ventilation system) but still get as good of a sear as possible, you're really looking to keep the temperature in the pan somewhere around or slightly below 400 (that's only my best guess, BTW). The sear won't be quite as ideal as what you can get with a hotter pan/oil, but you can avoid smoke and still brown meat. Assuming you don't have an IR thermometer, ironically you might find that you avoid smoke best by using an oil with a moderate smoke point rather than a very high one, because the smoking point of the oil can act as a kind of warning that your pan is too hot. The faint wisps of smoke from an oil that's just barely too hot aren't much to worry about, and it's easy to just turn the heat down; meanwhile if you add meat to a pan that is significantly above 400 thinking it's cooler than it is, you might get a lot of smoke.

            2. America's Test Kitchen also advises to wait until the oil gives off a bit of smoke, in some of its recipes. I don't know about steak.

              When doing high-heat cooking like stir-fry, I use peanut oil because its smoke point is said to be the highest. If you or your guest have a peanut allergy, that wouldn't work. Canola oil is also pretty smoke-safe.

              1 Reply
              1. re: John Francis

                There are many oils with higher smoke points than peanut oil and canola oil. Take a look at the link I posted above.