“Can you cook with extra virgin olive oil?”. It’s a question we hear from consumers regularly. Unfortunately, there’s a ton of misinformation out there about olive oil, especially extra virgin, so let’s first get a few things cleared up.
Extra virgin olive oil is one of the most heavily researched foods on the planet. In fact, universities and researchers have been studying all types of olive oil extensively for the past 100 years. However, in the last 40 years, researchers and scientists have found what feels like an insurmountable amount of evidence proving that you can in fact cook with olive oil. In addition, they’ve proven that extra virgin olive oil has incredible health benefits. For example, researchers at Temple University have studied ways in which extra virgin olive oil can help individuals with dementia. This brings ‘super food’ to a whole new level. Many in the science community believe they’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how extra virgin olive oil affects the overall health of human beings. This is so exciting!
The misinformation about olive oil, especially extra virgin, is often shared on social media platforms, television, and blogs. Some of the worst offenders are celebrity chefs and home cooks with a large following (sorry, but it’s true!). However, then we have some gems like Rachael Ray, Ina Garten, and Sohla who have been sharing the good word of extra virgin olive oil since the beginning. Now let’s dive in.
Can You Cook With Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
Yes, you can cook with regular olive oil and extra virgin olive oil. Human beings have been using olive oil in cooking and food prep for thousands of years and it’s essentially the core of the Mediterranean diet. Many consider olive oil, especially extra virgin, to be the best cooking oil option and thanks to technology we now have the science to back that up.
The Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating research article states the following:
“…EVOO yielded low levels of polar compounds and oxidative by-products, in contrast to the high levels of by-products generated for oils such as canola oil. EVOO’s fatty acid profile and natural antioxidant content allowed the oil to remain stable when heated (unlike oils with high levels of poly-unsaturated fats (PUFAs) which degraded more readily)….”
There is also the info on the fact that cooking with extra virgin olive oil can increase the health benefits of the food itself. For example, a study published in the journal Food Chemistry found that phenols and antioxidants from extra virgin olive oil are transferred to vegetables cooked in it, thereby increasing the nutrition content of the vegetables. Another recent study published in the journal Molecules found that cooking garlic, tomatoes and onion in olive oil actually helped release their bioactive compounds and improve their absorption.
How To Cook With Olive Oil
Heat at least 1 tsp of extra virgin olive oil in a pan on low or medium heat for approximately 40s or until the oil begins to look very shiny when moved around in the pan. If on medium or medium low heat it should not smoke. If it does smoke the heat is too high or the pan is too thin. Once oil is heated, add food to the pan and cook as you usually would. It’s not recommended to cook on high heat.
The key to cooking with olive oil is understanding the product as a whole. Olive oil is produced by extracting the oil from the olive fruit. It’s a fat that’s liquid at room temperature, contrary to butter which is solid at room temperature. At room temperature, if left in a marinade with seasonings it will absorb the flavors. However, it absorbs flavors best with heat.
When heated olive oil absorbs and retains the flavors of seasonings and food extremely well, creating the perfect base for soups, stew, herby eggs, and sauces. It’s not just a product that creates a barrier between your food and the pan, it absorbs those flavors and acts as a vehicle to transport them. Spices and flavors will be evenly distributed instead of concentrated in patches. This means olive oil can and should be the superstar base of pretty much any savory dish.
But What About Butter?
Oh don’t worry, butter can stay. As our friend Elizabeth Minchilli says, ‘we are equal fat opportunists’. Currently, there are several packs of butter in our fridge and that’s the way we like things. Olive oil absolutely can be a one-stop-shop replacement for butter (or other fats/oils) if that’s what you want. In fact, for most savory dishes it’s extremely easy to swap butter for olive oil, especially for roasting and sauteeing. It’s a matter of personal preference.
However, it’s extremely challenging to swap olive oil for butter in baking because baking is so scientific and measured. Also, olive oil does not behave the same way as butter when baked. It’s a dense and heavy product. Have you ever seen an incredibly decadent olive oil croissant?
We recently found that extra virgin can be used as a sub in a roux. The question is would you want to? It’s a personal preference.
Butter For Pancakes
Have you ever tried to make pancakes with olive oil? Spoiler alert. If you’re into big, light, fluffy pancakes that get crispy on the edges and float on top of one another you’re in for a catastrophic ending. Many a Sunday brunch have been ruined by my olive oil pancake experiments. Trying to make pancakes with olive oil is like trying to eat cotton candy in the rain. They end up flat, mushy, and sad. They taste good but half the fun of eating pancakes is the texture and olive oil does not have the same chemical makeup as butter so it just doesn’t work out.
Olive Oil For Waffles
Waffles on the other hand turn out fabulous when made with extra virgin olive oil. It lends an incredible texture and savoriness to waffles that’s hard to beat. Paired with a decadent jam or syrup it’s absolutely delicious. You can use olive oil within the recipe and to oil the waffle maker to ensure the batter doesn’t stick. Make sure the batter cooks thoroughly and is slightly golden and developed a crust before removing it or you’ll end up with a mess. After a few tries, you’ll get the hang of it.
How To Choose A Good Cooking Olive Oil
First, make sure you’re shopping within your price range then move on to the flavor profile. The rule is to choose the highest quality olive oil you can afford.
Different foods call for different oils. For salads, fish, pestos, and goat cheese a gentler oil with notes of citrus, almond, green apple, grass, or herbs would be lovely. See the Turi. For stews, soups, and beans an olive with a peppery finish, notes of green pepper, herbs, and tomato work well. See the Lina. For BBQ meats, roasted chicken, lamb, or grilled veggies a full-bodied oil with notes of chili, artichoke, and spice. See the Avus.
Clearing Up The Smoke Point
Stop worrying about smoke point. Headlines and newspapers thrive on headlines that throw readers into a panic. But there’s truly no need to worry or obsess over smoke point. There are two parts to this, let’ start off with the common sense one first.
First, you should not be cooking your food on high, ever. Unless you’re literally cooking with a wok. Cooking on high is the fastest way to get some crusty, burnt food. A good sear on chicken thighs comes from a well-heated pan that’s on medium or medium-low because this allows the fat and meat to darken evenly. The fat also renders beautifully without burning. Cooking on high can also lead to the center of your pan being much hotter than the sides. Try cooking on a max of medium-high heat.
The second point is the research clearing up the smoke point myths. While writing this article I reached out to the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) for some resources on olive oil smoke points. They were kind enough to share the following information.
The Washington Post: “What you should know about oil smoke points — and why they’re not as scary as you might think.” states the following:
“We’ve consistently heard from readers chiding us for recommending roasting food with olive oil in the oven at a temperature above the supposed smoke point…but there’s more at play here…there are plenty of other things to absorb the heat and energy — the pan, the food, the moisture of the meat or vegetables. Water or a sauce with the food can help, too. The oil is not taking the brunt of the heat, and it’s unlikely that the temperature of the oil will equalize to that of the oven itself. If it did, your food would probably be dried out and inedible anyway.”
U.S. News & World Report: “Why You Should Stop Worrying About Olive Oil’s Smoke Points”, Holly Herrington, a registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital states, “Oxidative stability, not smoke point, is the best predictor of how an oil behaves during cooking.”
What Not To Do When Cooking With Olive Oil (& Other Oils)
As stated previously, it’s extremely important to be mindful of the heat setting when cooking with olive oil, however, this applies to all oils! Olive oil is not unique in the sense that it can smoke. All oils will smoke while cooking if not used properly. When cooking with extra virgin olive oil (and other oils) here’s what not to do:
Heat olive oil on high heat
Leave olive oil on heat and walk away
Let the oil smoke profusely and continue cooking (think clouds of smoke, kitchen fire)
Again, these rules apply to all cooking oils. This is about cooking responsibly and well. Heating oil on high can be a safety hazard.
A Few Favorite Recipes
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