Everyone loves swathing extra virgin olive oil over everything, but there seems to much controversy over whether you can cook with it or not. What is the answer?
The EVOO “Controversy”
As we all know, Rachel Ray LOVES to cook with her EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) in the pan.
But I once worked with a nutritionist (in my storied cooking past) who said that every time she saw Rachel Ray make that recommendation, it drove her into a tizzy.
The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil is too low such that the heat would breakdown the oil and emit dangerous, cancer causing free radicals.
So which is it? Can you cook with extra virgin olive oil or not?
What does Google say?
Can Google tell us definitively whether you can cook with extra virgin oil or not? A sampling of results on page 1 of Google for a search on “extra virgin olive oil for cooking” yields these results:
The Kitchn – you can, but “it burns at a lower temperature”
Healthline – yes, “Not only is it an excellent cooking oil, but it is also one of the healthiest”
World’s Healthiest Food – no, “we cannot see how to preserve the maximum phytonutrient content in EVOO unless cooking heats are avoided”
Bon Appetit magazine – no, the smoke point is too low
What does the olive oil industry say?
Wouldn’t those you make and sell olive oil know most about the qualities of olive oil and whether you can cook with it?
Here is what a sampling of companies have to say:
Colavita– yes, you can bake and fry with it
California Olive Ranch – yes, it is “one of the best oils to cook with”
North American Olive Oil Association – yes, “it is the most stable and safest cooking oil available”
As you might have guessed, companies in the business of selling extra virgin olive oil would most certainly promote it as a jack of all trades, one stop shop culinary wonder.
What do famous chefs say?
Finally, let’s see what famous chefs, arbiters of taste, recommend when it comes to cooking with extra virgin olive oil.
- Tom Colicchio, of Top Chef and Craft restaurant fame, doesn’t say anything specifically in his book, but every recipe uses a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil to fry lamb chops, saute broccoli rabe, and roast sea scallops.
His book Craft of Cooking: Notes and Recipes from a Restaurant Kitchen is also one of my favorite cookbooks with wonderfully written recipes that work.
- Marcella Hazan, famed cooking teacher and author of Marcella’s Italian Kitchen says:
“Only use extra virgin olive oil,” on page 5 of her Elementary Rules
She does brown chicken fricassee in extra virgin olive oil, but any more than a few tablespoons in her recipes, and she uses “vegetable oil for frying.”
She likes sauteeing with extra virgin olive oil but not heavy frying.
- Mario Batali, of Babbo fame, on the other hand, does recommend frying with extra virgin olive oil.
In his recipe for Fried Eggplant featured in Molto Italiano, he states:
“The smoking point of olive oil is quite a bit lower, around 375 degrees F. According to logic, then, and a whole lot of ‘food science experts,’ it would seem that frying in extra virgin olive oil would result in burnt flavor or soggy undercooked foods. But anyone who has ever eaten an artichoke “alla Giudia” in Rome knows this not to be the case, and olive oil is my oil of choice for deep-frying.”
The recipe calls for frying the eggplant in ¼ c of extra virgin olive oil, which is only 4 Tablespoons and not the large pot of bubbling oil you may have imagined.
- Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, does not call out extra virgin olive oil specifically, but he does use it in his recipe for cod in the Bouchon cookbook.
- poaches cod in 3-4 cups of EVOO but only brings it to a temperature of 140 degrees fahrenheit, infused with garlic, then 115-125 to cook.
The recipe calls for 3-4 cups of extra virgin olive oil. However, he only brings it up to a temperature of 140 degrees F, infuses the oil with garlic, and then brings it down to 115-125 degrees F to cook the fish.
Because the temperature is so low, it is well below the smoke point of most extra virgin olive oils.
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Extra Virgin Olive Oil Smoke Point
The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil will range depending on how highly processed and refined the olive oil is made.
When I visited the Grapevine Olive Oil Company in Grapevine, TX, the woman in the shop told me that all of their extra virgin, cold pressed olive oils had a smoking point of 425 degrees F.
Since sauteeing, frying, and roasting most foods is done a temperature between 350-375 degrees F, it would seem that this extra virgin olive oil is safe to cook with.
Similarly, the California Olive Ranch states that their high quality olive oil has a smoke point upwards of 425 degrees F.
According to them, “A general rule of thumb to follow is the higher the quality of the oil and the fresher it is, the higher the smoke point will be.”
“Lower quality olive oils, on the other hand..will smoke at a lower temperature.”
Since there are range of so many extra virgin olive oils to choose from, how can you tell?
Generally, a higher quality olive oil will come in a dark bottle to block out light that can damage the oil, and it will also be a whole lot more expensive.
And if it is a lot more expensive, do you really want to use it to cook with where some of the aromatic and flavor compounds could be destroyed by heat?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil for cooking or salad
Part of extra virgin olive oil is aromatic. It has many flavor compounds that smell and taste good.
These compounds may breakdown with high heat before the smoke point is reached.
Also, extra virgin olive oil, especially a very nice one, is expensive. Do you really want to spend that much money to simply fry some chicken and vegetables?
This is why you often hear the adage that extra virgin olive oil should be reserved as a finishing oil or drizzled into salad.
Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil for Cooking
The best extra virgin olive oil for cooking has a high smoke point due to its freshness and high quality production.
Here are a few high quality recommendations:
Rated the highest quality olive oil by America’s Test Kitchen and made in the USA in sunny California, so you can be sure it does not have a counterfeit olive oil.
La Tourangelle makes very high quality nut and seed oils that are packaged in a can to keep out light from damaging those delicate flavor compounds. This oil is also organic.
This company from Greece touts its many awards, organic olives, and sustainable production.
Helpful Tips for when to use Extra Virgin olive oil:
- Play it safe by just using it in cold options like salad, dipping sauce for bread, or drizzling over already cooked dishes such as pasta and fish.
- Use it for lower temperature cooking applications, such as a lightly cooked tomato basil sauce or to brush on crostini that will bake at 350 degrees F in the oven.
- Cook with extra virgin olive oil because you’ve run out of all other cooking oils in your house, and you’re not about to make an extra trip to the grocery store to grab some.
- Since it is more expensive than regular olive oil, reserve extra virgin olive oil for cooking when a small amount is needed for pan frying, rather than a full pot for deep frying.
- The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil can vary widely, but generally will have a higher smoke point up to 425 degrees F for a fresh, high quality one.
Finally, you can avoid the controversy of cooking with extra virgin olive oil by just not using it all, such as with Asian food.
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