Stir-fry is an Asian cooking technique that involves cooking bite-size pieces of meat and vegetables in a pan over high heat, and selecting the right stir-fry oil is an important part of preparing this dish correctly. Seeking out a refined oil with a high smoke point can be beneficial in light of the technique's requirement for high, direct heat. Considering the desired flavor of the meal also can help in choosing the right oil, because a combination of oils can help to accent the flavor of the final meal. Among the most popular stir-fry oils are peanut oil and sesame oil, though these also can bring food allergies into play.
Many traditional Asian recipes call for the use of peanut oil, in part because it has a high smoke point. This oil often is used in several high-temperature cooking methods, including deep-frying and stir-frying. Sesame oil also is popular and also can withstand high-temperature cooking methods.
Flavor is another important consideration in picking the right oil for stir-fried meals. Peanut oil has a slight nutty flavor, which it will impart to some foods during cooking. Sesame oil is available in both a light version and as a darker, toasted sesame oil. It also has a distinct flavor that is easily imparted to the meal, but the strength of that flavor leads many cooks to blend it with another oil to tone it down a bit. One option is to cook using an oil such as peanut or canola oil and then to add a few drops of sesame oil right before serving as a simple flavor boost.
While choosing the right oil can add a significant amount of flavor to a stir-fry dish, some cooks prefer a more neutrally flavored stir-fry oil, such as canola, which doesn't detract from the other ingredients' flavors. Canola oil also has a fairly high smoke point and is low in saturated fat compared to other cooking oils. Canola oil has the added benefit of being an all-purpose cooking oil option, doing away with the need for multiple specialty oils in one's pantry.
The stir-frying technique generally requires the oil to be preheated in the cooking pan over high heat, so unrefined oils with lower smoke points should be avoided. In addition to smoking up the kitchen, these oils will begin to break down at higher cooking temperatures and affect the flavor of the final dish. Popular cooking oils such as extra-virgin olive oil and butter have a lower smoke point, which generally makes them unsuitable as a stir-fry oil. Refined olive oil can be used in some recipes and, in some cases, butter can be mixed with an oil such as canola to raise its smoke point to the required cooking temperature, but it requires a careful balance that some cooks may not want to bother with achieving.
When dealing with the stir-fry oil used in Asian cuisines, it is important to remember that many diners are highly allergic to nut oils. One should always ask guests about any nut allergies before serving them stir-fry dishes prepared with any type of nut-based oil. These types of food allergies can cause serious reactions, which can lead to hospitalization or death. People with nut allergies may wish to try a corn-based stir-fry oil in their Asian recipes.