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The olive oil dilemma - can I cook with extra virgin?

Extra virgin olive oil/ Olivaolaj főzéshez/ Olive oil

The olive oil dilemma - can I cook with extra virgin?

October 7, 2023 By Sol Deli

One of the most common questions we hear is whether you can cook with olive oil and what type of olive oil is good for cooking.

Let's delve a bit deeper into some common concerns related to cooking with olive oil and discuss why extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the best and safest cooking oil.

Can You Cook With Olive Oil?

The short answer: yes, you can cook with olive oil! And yes, with extra virgin too!

In fact, it's the fundamental fat in the authentic Mediterranean kitchen. Extra virgin olive oil can be used for almost everything, from making the perfect salad dressing or basil pesto to light pasta sauces, grilled chicken, beef dishes, marinades, roasted vegetables, and much more!

There are often rumors that olive oil is not safe for cooking because of its low smoke point or that harmful compounds form in the oil when heated. These are myths that research has repeatedly debunked. While the smoke point of olive oil is slightly lower than that of some other cooking oils, it remains stable even at high temperatures, and that's the key factor to focus on (more on this later).

Smoke Point

One primary concern when it comes to the question of "can you cook with olive oil" is the smoke point of olive oil. The smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke. For olive oil, this value is between 190 and 210 degrees Celsius. Let's compare this value to the smoke points of common cooking oils:

Extra virgin olive oil: 190-210 °C
Sunflower oil: 225 °C
Canola oil: 205 °C
Unrefined coconut oil: 175 °C
Corn oil: 230 °C

As you can see, the smoke point of olive oil is just slightly lower than, for example, sunflower oil, which we generally don't heat until it starts smoking, anyhow. However, when cooking with oil, it's more important to focus on oxidative stability. Olive oil is more stable for cooking than many other oils.

Oxidative Stability

According to the North American Olive Oil Association, it's not the smoke point of cooking oil but its oxidative stability that is the primary consideration. Oxidative stability is related to how resistant oil fats are to reactions with oxygen, heat, and light.

While the smoke point of the extra virgin olive oil is somewhat lower than that of, for example, sunflower oil, high-quality extra virgin olive oil is still a good choice for cooking. The essential thing that happens when heating olive oil is that some of its aromatic compounds evaporate. This means that a portion of the rich, peppery flavor is lost during the cooking process. However, in most cases, the oil remains stable and retains the majority of its beneficial nutrients.

This is thanks to the antioxidant properties and fatty acid composition of extra virgin olive oil. In simple terms, extra virgin olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, which are quite heat-stable and less prone to oxidation. Examples of monounsaturated fats include oleic acid, palmitic acid, and linoleic acid. Monounsaturated fats are considered healthy fats, having anti-inflammatory properties, being heart-friendly, and aiding in weight control.

The type of fat we need to be concerned about is polyunsaturated fats, which become unstable at high temperatures. In a 2018 study, different oils were exposed to varying degrees of heat to determine the extent of fatty acid alteration. It was found that oils with higher polyunsaturated fat content (such as corn oil) produced twice as many harmful compounds as extra virgin olive oil, despite corn oil having a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil.

The level of antioxidants also plays a role in oxidative stability. In simple terms, antioxidants help protect oil from oxidation, so the more antioxidants an oil has, the better. Extra virgin olive oil has a high level of antioxidants because it is unrefined, meaning it provides better protection against oxidation. Vegetable oils and other refined oils have very low antioxidant levels, making their oxidative stability lower.

Does Cooking with EVOO Negate Its Health Benefits?

Extra virgin olive oil has been highly valued for millennia due to its array of health benefits, including being rich in healthy fats and antioxidants, helping protect against heart disease and type 2 diabetes, aiding in the removal of harmful bacteria, and more.

While heating extra virgin olive oil reduces its nutrient composition, a study published in the journal 'Antioxidants' by the University of Barcelona found that olive oil still retains a significant amount of its healthy compounds. The study concluded that, while the amount of polyphenols in olive oil decreases due to heating, the antioxidants and polyphenol levels remain quite high even with the impact of heating.

In other words, when heating the oil, you lose some of its nutrients, but many of them still remain.

Cooking with olive oil

Types of Olive Oil

Walking into any supermarket, you're likely to see a vast selection of olive oils. Choosing the best olive oil for cooking can be confusing. Let's break it down. Olive oil comes in four main types:

Extra virgin olive oil: The least processed, most flavorful, and natural form of olive oil.
Virgin olive oil: Similar to extra virgin but of lower quality, with higher acidity and a less distinctive flavor.
Olive oil or refined olive oil: Refined olive oil is higher in acidity, lower in quality, and a blend of virgin olive oil. It lacks the rich taste and health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
Sansa or pomace oil: The lowest quality oils, made by processing by-products of olive oil production, such as olive pulp or pomace, using heat and chemical methods. They are often mixed with a small amount of virgin olive oil for sale. For your well-being, it's advisable to avoid oils labeled as sansa or pomace.

Some Tips to Keep in Mind When Cooking with Olive Oil

For the best flavor, try to pay attention to the heating of olive oil as much as possible. Heat the oil until it shimmers, but don't let it smoke. This means you can see the oil moving, a gentle shimmer or ripple appears on the surface, and tiny bubbles form underneath. There might even be a bit of steam. At this point, the oil is hot enough for cooking, and there's no need to heat it further.

When to Use Another Oil Instead of Olive Oil?

There's really only one scenario where we'd suggest using another oil instead of extra virgin olive oil: deep frying.

One of the main reasons is that high-quality extra virgin olive oil is relatively expensive. Deep frying requires a significant amount of oil, and it seems wasteful to use this much oil only to discard it after use. Additionally, if deep frying takes a long time, the olive oil loses its flavor and begins to deteriorate (the combination of high heat and prolonged frying accelerates oxidative reactions).

If you have any questions about olive oils, feel free to reach out to us!