Remember the post I wrote about olive oil a couple of years ago? It remains one of the most popular posts on the FTB blog. With good reason too – when it comes to fats of any kind, olive oil included, myths and misconceptions abound. As the shelves of Bangalore’s grocery stores swell with more and more olive oil brands and variants, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit and expand upon that post.
Olive oil basics: a recap
The test of an olive oil is to see how well the taste, aroma, vitamins and properties of the olive fruit have been retained. Obviously, EVOO comes up aces. Try smelling pomace oil!
- • Extra virgin olive oil is derived from the first pressing of the fruit, and contains no added chemicals or other substances. It is never exposed to temperatures higher than 27.7ºC, and never has an acidity level of above .8%.
• “Pure olive oil“,”refined olive oil“, or “100% olive oil” is olive oil that has been extracted with the aid of heat and refined with chemicals. It is inferior in terms of flavor , has a higher acidity level, and is often combined with small amounts of virgin or extra-virgin olive oil for flavor.
• “Light” olive oil is merely a marketing concept. It refers to any refined vegetable oil (canola, safflower, groundnut…) with a small quantity of extra virgin olive oil blended in for flavor. In other words – it isn’t light on calories, it’s light on olive oil!
• Olive-pomace oil is obtained by treating pomace (the yucky ground olive flesh and pits that remain after oil extraction) with solvents and other treatments. Olive-pomace oil is not meant to be consumed at all – it is meant for industrial purposes.
Although that’s the bare minimum you need to know about olive oil, there’s so much more to it. The EAT (European Art of Taste) program, an initiative supported by the European Union and the Italian Government, taught me a whole lot more than how to read olive oil labels.
For one thing, I learnt how olive cultivation and harvesting techniques affect the taste and quality of the oil.
For another, I learnt correct tasting technique – FYI, it’s even more complicated than the look-swirl-smell-taste wine-tasting process! I also acquired the ability to recognize rancidity and other defects such as fustiness.
The two most important things I learnt, though, were:
- how to heat olive oil correctly
- why olive oil is considered nutritionally better than other oils
Cooking With Olive Oil
Perhaps the most widespread myth about cooking with extra virgin olive oil is that you must never heat it. This is simply not true. You can indeed heat EVOO – provided you keep the temperature below its smoke point.
Smoke point is the temperature at which any oil begins to emit a gaseous vapor (ie, smoke). This is the point at which the oil begins to decompose, resulting in chemical changes that reduce flavor and nutritional value. Worse, decomposition produces carcinogenic free radicals.
Refined oils are chemically treated in order to increase their smoke point. Because extra virgin olive oil is an unrefined oil, most people think it has a low smoke point. It does have a smoke point lower than that of refined oils, but according to the International Olive Oil Council:
When heated, olive oil is the most stable fat, which means it stands up well to high frying temperatures. Its high smoke point (410ºF or 210ºC) is well above the ideal temperature for frying food (356ºF or 180ºC). The digestibility of olive oil is not affected when it is heated, even when it is re-used several times for frying.
- Always heat the skillet or pan on medium-high heat before adding oil.
- After adding the oil to the pan, it takes between 40 and 90 seconds for it to reach a temperature that is just below smoke point, depending on the quality of the oil and the thickness and material of the pan. When you place food in the pan, it should sizzle; if not, the pan and oil are not hot enough.
- As with any other oil – always ensure ingredients are dry before putting them into hot oil. If not, a layer of steam will form between the food and the oil, making it impossible to obtain a nice, crispy exterior.
- When grilling meats or vegetables, brush them with olive oil to enhance flavor, seal in juices, and make the exterior crispy.
Is olive oil all really that different from other vegetable oils?
There’s a lot of confusion about the cholesterol content of various oils. Although I have covered fats and cholesterol in an earlier post, I’m recapping here for those who are too lazy to click on the link.
Most people assume that all fats contain cholesterol. This is not true. By definition, cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the body of all animals. In terms of food, therefore, cholesterol is found only in animal-derived products – butter, for example. Plant-derived products do not themselves contain any cholesterol – but they do impact our blood cholesterol levels.
Many people also believe that some fats are higher in calorie-count than others. Talk to a nutritionist – not true. All fats contain 9 calories per gram – there’s no such thing as a “low calorie” oil. What, then, makes some fats (olive oil included) better than others? It’s simple. All oils, whether plant- or animal-based, contain fatty acids of different kinds in different proportions – some are good for us, some not. Oils that contain a higher proportion of “good” fatty acids to “bad” are considered better for our health.
Saturated fatty acids are the bad guys. They increase the overall level of cholesterol in our blood. Animal-based fats like butter have a high SFA content, as do oils that are solid at room temperature, like coconut oil and palm oil.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids have a beneficial as well as a detrimental effect. Human beings produce two kinds of cholesterol – LDL (bad) cholesterol, that deposits itself on arterial walls; and HDL (good) cholesterol, that is processed by the liver. PUFAs indiscrimintaely lower both kinds of cholesterol. Corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and sunflower oil are all PUFA-rich.
Monounsaturated fatty acids are nutritional heroes, because they lower our LDL cholesterol levels without adversely affecting HDL cholesterol levels. Olive oil, canola oil, and (surprise, surprise!) peanut oil are MUFA-rich fats.
So why is olive oil so highly regarded amongst health professionals? A nutritionist I shall call Smiley One (you know who you are!) shared this data with me:
You can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be using sunflower or safflower oil anymore!
Aside: What if you can’t afford to cook everything in EVOO? Canola isn’t readily available here 😦 Smiley One told me that a good peanut oil is the next best thing. She insisted that it does not necessarily impart the taste of peanuts to food, and sent me a sample to “see for myself”. Smiley One: you were right! Thank you for insisting!