Stir-frying is one of the most commonly used cooking techniques in Chinese cooking. The key to making a really good stir-fry is using a really high cooking temperature and cooking the food really quickly.
Why Oil Matters When Cooking a Stir-fry
Because stir-frying involves cooking food at high heats, it’s important to choose an oil that has a high smoke point. If you don't, the oil will burn and the whole dish will be ruined.
You will never see any Chinese people use butter to cook stir-fries because butter, like some oils, has a much lower smoke point than most cooking oils.
Oil that is heated to its smoke point or higher will begin smoking and will start to impart a bitter taste to the food. Furthermore, because the oil is breaking down at a molecular level, it can produce carcinogens.
Highest Smoke Point Oils
Chinese cooks normally use soybean oil, vegetable oil, or peanut oil, all of which have a high smoke point. Peanut oil usually has a pleasant nutty flavor and it’s suitable not only for stir-frying but also for deep-frying. Canola oil, which also has a high smoke point but a neutral flavor, is also a good choice. Other types of oil you can use are corn, soybean and coconut oil.
You can also use olive oil to cook a stir-fry. Nowadays more and more Chinese families care about healthy living and eating so olive oil has become very popular in Chinese households.
If you use olive oil to cook all the time, please don’t confuse this with “extra virgin olive oil.” Extra virgin olive oil has a very low smoke point with a strong flavor making it completely unsuitable for stir-frying.
Another oil that is becoming more popular for stir-frying and deep-frying is grapeseed oil.
Grapeseed oil is made from the seeds of grapes after the wine has been pressed. Grapeseed oil has a clean flavor and a high smoke point (420 F or 195 C). Grapeseed oil has similar health benefits to olive oil but with a more neutral flavor.
List of the high smoke point oils:
- Safflower oil (510F/ 265C)
- Rice Bran Oil (490F/ 260C)
- Light/Refined Olive Oil (465F/240C)
- Soybean Oil (450F/230C)
- Peanut Oil (450F/230C)
- Corn Oil (450F/230C)
- Vegetable Oil (400-450F/ 205-230C)
- Sunflower Oil (440F/225C)
- Grapeseed Oil (390F/195C)
So which stir-fry oils are the healthiest? Both Canola oil and olive oil are low in unhealthy saturated fats and high in healthy monounsaturated fats. Scientists believe monounsaturated fats help to lower bad cholesterol (LDL) that can clog arteries, leading to heart disease or strokes while increasing the level of good cholesterol (HDL) that removes cholesterol buildup from the arteries.
Grapeseed oil is low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat, which scientists believe can also help raise HDL levels. Grapeseed oil is also a good source of linoleic acid—a type of essential fatty acid which, like the Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, can’t be manufactured by our bodies and must be obtained from food.
Can sesame oil be used for stir-fry? Sesame oil has a very low smoke point so we don’t generally use this for stir-fries. There are some Chinese dishes that use toasted sesame oil to fry the ingredients, such as three cup chicken. But you need to be very careful when you heat up toasted sesame oil in a wok. Don’t overheat it otherwise it will burn and make your dish taste very bitter. Most of the time in Chinese cooking, sesame oil is only used for seasoning or adding to stir-fry dishes at the end of cooking.
More Stir-fry Tips
The final choice of oils is up to you, and of course price, availability, and personal taste will play a role in your decision. Once you've selected your oil, follow these tips for a top-notch stir-fry:
- Cut up all your ingredients before heating the oil. Once the oil is hot, you'll want to stir fry quickly, at a high heat.
- It's a good idea to cook your meats or poultry first, and then set it aside; that way you can be sure it's cooked thoroughly.
- Add ingredients based on the amount of time they need to cook. Broccoli, for example, should go into the wok (or pan) before scallions.
- Keep your stir-fry moving. If you allow it to sit, you'll end up with something closer to a stew.