Know Your Oil

Cooking with Olive Oil

Let me save you the suspense and tell you: go ahead and cook with olive oil to your heart’s desire!

My childhood was sprinkled with carefree and unforgettable experiences.  One of them being spending whole summers in my grandmother’s village, snuggled in-between the mountains and valleys in the heart of the Greek isle of Lesvos.

My grandmother loved to cook, and still does.  She looks upon it as something sacred; a test for maintaining social reputation.   A more intimate form of our modern day facebook as neighbours stop by for a “visit” comparing notes on that day’s lunch menu: the ingredients used, where the fresh produce was bought, and the method used to cook.

No matter what my grandmother had on her menu, one ingredient always stayed uniform.  It was her precious extra virgin olive oil, which she stored in a large clay jar in the cool and dark pantry.  As long as I can remember, I knew no other way to fry, bake, or sauté my food other than with olive oil.

However, as I got older, reports were published and notable chefs were becoming more and more vocal about not cooking with olive oil, more specifically frying.  Even the famous George Mateljan, chef and author of The World’s Healthiest Foods, has a specific section on his website as to why he does not cook with olive oil.  Were these critics on to something that people from the Mediterranean did not know about all these years?

Well, let’s take a look more closely at the arguments as to why it was deemed unfit for cooking. The first argument is that the olive oil loses its colour and all its nutrients when fried.  The second argument is that due to a low smoke point, it would turn the healthy fat into a smoky, stinky, free-radical-releasing mess when heated, and would make it rancid – a state that declassifies extra virgin olive oil to a lower-grade (lampante) olive oil.

The first argument has been touted by supporters of not using extra virgin olive oil for cooking ever since olive oil has been deemed a “good” fat.  However, this opinion is a myth.  Firstly, heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fats are not unfavourably altered by heat. They survive a sauté intact. Now, research is showing that other plant-based compounds—the elements that likely give olive oils their complex flavour profiles as well as other healthful properties—can also stand up to standard cooking procedures. They’re surprisingly stable, as long as the oil is not heated past its smoking point, which for extra-virgin olive oil is pretty high—about 405°F or 210C.

The smoking point, which makes the olive oil stable, is also the main point concerning the second argument.  What is the smoke point? It is the temperature at which oil will start to smoke when heated.   So, can cooking with olive oil make it a free-radical mess?  The answer is no.  Olive oil is four to five times more resistant to heat than seed oils or butter, and it can be heated until 405°F or 210C without smoking.  The fact is that the average cooktop heats to between 350° and 375°F (177–191°C).  So, unless you go above this point, which in a household kitchen is difficult to do, then this argument becomes a myth.

Another good point is that you need less oil in food preparation because olive oil actually increases in volume when heated. Also, heating olive oil does not affect its digestibility.

Therefore, the bottom line is that olive oil does not become dangerous when fried , and it will not lose its nutrients.  It seems like Granny does know best.