How to choose the best fats and oils for frying

If you want butter's distinctive flavour in dishes that require frying, use usli ghee.
If you want butter's distinctive flavour in dishes that require frying, use usli ghee. Photo: iStock

Using the right kind of fat for different types of frying will make whatever you cook more delicious.

Generally, the higher a fat's smoke point – the temperature at which the fat goes from hot and shimmery to smoky and acrid – the more versatile and durable it is as a frying medium. A wisp of smoke is fine before tossing ingredients into a wok for a stir-fry or skillet for a sear, but a plume rising from the pan means the oil is burning, and the taste of burnt (not browned or toasted) fat is rarely what we're looking for in the kitchen.

To figure out which fat I want to use for which frying job, I think of them in these categories:

When heated, butter goes from melted to brown to burnt. Photo: iStock

Low to medium heat 

Butter (fresh and clarified) and usli ghee

Butter's fat content ranges from 80 per cent to 85 per cent; the rest is 13 per cent to 18 per cent water and 1 per cent to 2 per cent milkfat solids and whey proteins. When heated, butter goes from melted to brown to burnt. If it hits that last stage, it will ruin whatever you're cooking - plus, the fat colliding with the water over higher heats sputters and can burn you.

If you want butter's distinctive flavour in dishes that require frying, use usli ghee, a staple in Indian cuisine, or clarified butter. Clarifying butter – removing the whey and water by applying gentle heat – raises the point at which the butter smokes from about 150C to 230C. Ghee is cooked longer than clarified butter, giving it a nuttier aroma.

Even though ghee and clarified butter won't smoke until that high temperature, their flavour is more potent when used in medium-low and medium-heat frying.

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Pork fat in wooden plate, top view Ghee (clarified butter) - golden photo
Canola oil - oil in tub
Lard - white fat
Butter on bench
iStock photos

Animal fats have a rich flavour. Photo: iStock

Medium to medium-high heat

Rendered animal fats – lard; beef tallow; chicken fat (schmaltz); duck fat

Lard was fundamental to cooking around the world until the dawn of commercial alternatives. Thanks to the popularity of the keto diet, other rendered animal fats are now more readily available at supermarkets and online too. They taste the richest of all fats and with smoke points that range from 190C to 200C, they can be used for searing, sizzling and other higher-heat cooking, including deep-frying. The rendering process may leave some liquid in the fat, so watch out for popping when you heat it.

close up for vegetable oil in bowl Ghee (clarified butter) - golden photo
Canola oil - oil in tub
Lard - white fat
Butter on bench
iStock photos

Vegetable oils such as canola are incredibly versatile. Photo: iStock

Medium-high to high heat

Refined vegetable-based oils – vegetable, canola, corn, peanut, sunflower, safflower, rice bran, virgin/light/pure olive, refined avocado and grapeseed

Vegetable oils that are processed and refined after pressing end up with high smoke points, so they can be used in a multitude of ways and last longer in the pantry. What they lack in taste, they make up for in versatility.

With smoke points that range from 200C to 265C, these oils can be used for stir-frying, high-heat sauteing and shallow- and deep-frying. Shallow- and deep-frying, when food is partly or fully immersed in bubbling hot oil, require knowing the exact temperature of the oil. If you maintain the correct temperature, you'll be rewarded with crunchy outsides and properly cooked insides. The food won't absorb excess oil or feel greasy and actually end up tasting light and crisp.

Los Angeles Times/Tribune Content Agency