It’s a given that olive oil — particularly the top-quality extra virgin variety (a.k.a. EVOO) — is both good on the palate and good for the body. Rich in polyphenols and other antioxidants, EVOO has not only been shown to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, making it very heart-friendly, but it has also been seen to have a positive impact on everything from osteoporosis to cancer.
The consensus, however, begins to fray somewhat when the topic of cooking with olive oil (and here we’re talking about actually heating the stuff up for poaching, frying, etc., and not “finishing” a dish with a drizzle or two) arises. Even veteran gastronomes will often caution about the apparent dangers in heating olive oil; that it becomes toxic, causes cancer, and so on, concluding that olive oil — even the best stuff — is simply not a suitable cooking medium. Many disagree. And science appears to side with them.
“My experience is that this is completely untrue,” contests Matt Kantor, chef and co-owner of Bero, a newish Spanish eatery in Toronto’s east end. Kantor notes that much of the misconceptions around heating olive oil probably have to do with the fallacy that olive oil has a low “smoking point” or “breaks down” at a relatively low temperature.
When a fat or oil is heated to the point of smoking it begins to collapse into free fatty acids and glycerol. Its flavour is compromised, and its nutritional aspects are diminished. Every fat or oil will eventually smoke if heated beyond a certain point. To properly fry food, oil has to be heated to about 163˚C. Anunciación Carpio, biologist and fats expert at the Fats Institute in Seville, advises the smoking point for EVOO is 180˚C, well within the range for frying. So if it’s safe to do so, what’s the issue with frying with EVOO?
“It’s primarily a cost consideration,” admits Kantor, acknowledging that even the Spanish Almaoliva EVOO (especially suited for commercial kitchens) that he uses for fairly high volume applications is still relatively expensive. Couple this with the fact that he rarely reuses olive oil he has cooked with (“except for dishes like tortilla which are cooked at a pretty low temperature, and even then I won’t reuse it more than twice”), and you start to understand the financial implications. “This is Toronto, not Spain,” Kantor laments. However, the financial implications may be less than even he imagines.
“The evidence suggests high quality EVOO resists heat-based cooking techniques much better than seed oils,” reports Dolores Smith of Olivar Corp, purveyor of top-flight Spanish EVOOs to fine dining establishments and specialty retailers. “In fact, in a study done fairly recently by a Food Sciences university faculty at UPV in northern Spain, unsuitable levels of degraded components were reached when frying potatoes at 180˚C after the sunflower oil had been reused 17 times. It took 44 reuses before the same levels were detected with the olive oil. In taste tests, untrained tasters also identify off flavours considerably earlier in the potatoes fried in sunflower oil.”
So although EVOO is more expensive than sunflower oil, you could, theoretically, use it over two-and-a-half times longer than the seed oil. And it would taste superior and be healthier.
Smith also emphasizes that the better the quality of the olive oil, the better it will take to heating, and even possible overheating. “The higher quality the oil, the less it will have been broken down during the extraction process and the more resistant it will be to [degeneration] due to high heat.”
The decision to use olive oil — and what grade of it — in the cooking process really depends on the role you want it to play … supporting or starring.
“When we make our sofrito and base sauces, we use a medium intense olive oil that will not change the flavours of what we are cooking, but rather enhance and add body,” reveals Stuart Cameron, Executive Chef at Patria, a downtown Toronto, Barcelona-inspired resto lounge that opened early this year to great (and continuing) accolades. “When we sauté and panfry seafood and meats in a mild tasting Spanish olive oil, we find that the product never becomes greasy or oily, rather, [the oil] gives [the dish] richness and subtle flavour.” Cameron says that he prefers to use the more intense, top-end Spanish EVOOs to finish a dish. “Whether it is as simple as a drizzle on top of seafood or salad, or a large drizzle on top of chocolate.”
“A great recipe to showcase the use of Spanish olive oil is the Salmorejo Cordobés,” Cameron contends. “It’s a Spanish chilled tomato bread soup with boiled egg and jamón ibérico. What makes it great is the use of two different olive oils that play different parts in the dish; a lighter oil for the base of the soup, as not to take away from the tomatoes, and a deeper intense flavoured olive oil with richer, grassy flavours, as a finishing oil.”
Cameron kindly shares his recipe with Quench readers.
1 kg vine tomatoes
1 garlic clove
250 grams sourdough bread, torn
100 ml mild-tasting EVOO (such as Almaoliva or Oro San Carlos)
1 gram salt
300 ml tomato water
15 grams aged sherry vinegar
Chopped jamón ibérico
Blend tomatoes and garlic; strain. Add to bread and let soak for 1 hour. Mash tomato into the bread.
Return to blender and thin out with tomato water. Add olive oil, season with sherry vinegar, salt and pepper. Consistency should be similar to thick cream.
Boil egg for 8 minutes. Grate the egg (white and yolk separately).
Sprinkle each serving with chopped egg and jamón ibérico. Drizzle with Spanish extra virgin olive oil and migas (essentially prepared Spanish breadcrumbs).