When it comes to pan frying, the choice of oil can significantly impact the outcome of your dishes. The best oil for general pan frying can vary depending on what you’re making. My constant companions are butter, animal fats, avocado, macadamia, and olive oil. For my Mediterranian cooking, olive oil. For Thai food, coconut oil. For my French dishes, loads of butter. If you’re whipping up a stir fry, sesame oil might help enhance the flavor.
Ultimately, the choice of oil should complement the flavor of the dish you’re cooking while being able to handle the heat level of your particular cooking method.
The Role of Oil in Pan Frying
General pan-frying uses minimal oil or fat compared to other methods like deep frying. This method typically involves just enough oil to lubricate the pan.
The process of pan-frying adds depth of flavor to the food. A small amount of oil can impart a distinctive taste if you go with a flavorful oil, or simply stop things sticking to your pan if you want something more neutral while also creating a crusty layer on the food.
Pan-frying is considered a dry-heat method of cooking. It relies on oil or fat as the medium for heat transfer. The oil generates steam, which helps cook the meat, while the exposed topside allows any accumulated steam to escape. Direct contact with the bottom of the pan facilitates greater browning and crisping.
As there is only partial coverage of the food with oil, you need to turn the food at least once to ensure both sides are cooked. The heat must remain at a constant temperature for even cooking.
Another key element in pan-frying is often using oil as a wet ingredient applied to the meat before adding dry rubs or spices. It helps keep the spice coating on the meat and aids in forming a delicious crust.
What Oils Should Not Be Used For Pan Frying
The smoke point of an oil determines what cooking applications it can be used for. A smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to produce smoke. This temperature can vary significantly between different types of oils. Understanding an oil’s smoke point is essential for safety and health reasons. If oil is heated beyond its flashpoint, it could ignite on your stovetop.
The smoke point also indicates the rate at which oil breaks down into free fatty acids. When an oil reaches its smoke point during cooking, it can alter the flavor of your food and release harmful free radicals.
Ideally, oils with low smoke points are not heated at all. Instead, they are best suited for use in smoothies and salads. Oils with high smoke points can withstand higher-heat cooking methods, and those oils that fall somewhere in the middle are perfect for cooking at moderate temperatures.
My general pan frying temperatures usually are between 300 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so I prefer to use fats and oils with a smoke point of at least 350 degrees, but preferably higher. Check out our fats and oils hub for all the smoke points of over 40 different fats and oils!
Choosing The Best Oil For Your Pan Frying Needs
There are so many different oils out there it can be hard to decide which one to use when pan frying. So, here are some of my tips!
One of the most versatile oils is olive oil, which I use in all my Mediterranean recipes. Its high content of unsaturated fats makes it a healthy choice, perfect for dressing veggies or enhancing the flavor and crust of a pan-fried Greek seasoned chicken breast.
For Asian cuisine, sesame oil and coconut oil are my main two. They handle the frying pan heat well and add a distinctive taste that complements the herbs and spices used in Asian cooking.
For Indian dishes, ghee, a type of clarified butter, is a staple when I can find it. Otherwise, I use butter. It adds a rich, creamy flavor that perfectly balances the bold spices commonly used in Indian cuisine. Butter is also the base fat for most of my French cooking.
For Mexican and Latin dishes, avocado oil is a great one. It adds a creamy, buttery texture and flavor that enhances the vibrant tastes of these cuisines.
Substituting Oils in Pan Frying
Most oils can be swapped 1:1, but it just might change the flavor and health benefits of your dish. Remember, if you are on a keto, paleo or Whole30 diet, there are certain oils and fats you may not be able to have, such as refined seed oils.
If what I am pan-frying does not have a high-fat content, then I use oil. I do not use it when frying things like burger patties or bacon, as those things release enough fat on their own.
Okay, this is a great question. I have honestly never thought about it. I add mine before it is hot for two reasons. One, I can see when the oil melts or bubbles, so then I know to add my protein or veggies. Two, if you heat the pan and then add the oil, and the pan is too hot, it could spit or spray at you. BUT I just did some googling, and a few people suggest waiting until your pan is hot before adding your oil, giving it less time to break down. But I think if you stay under your smoke points, that shouldn’t be much of an issue.