Since more than 5000 years it is the primary cooking oil used in the Mediterranean. I will not elaborate on Canola, Palm Seed, Coconut, Corn, Vegetable and the many other cooking oils. It’s a mute point for me. I use Extra Virgin Olive Oil and occasionally refined olive oil, which is sold in the US under labels like Pure, Classic, Light and Extra-Light Olive Oil.
Read more about the different quality grades and benefits: Olive Oil: Is it really virgin?
First a word about Smoke Points: Not an exact science, it depends on the variety and age of the oil, but here are some estimates:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil: 350°F (175°C)
- Virgin Olive Oil: 425°F (220°C)
- Refined Olive Oil, like Extra Light: 450°F (230°)
The smoke point is the temperature at which oil or fat is decomposed and where possibly toxicological relevant compounds are formed. I cannot think of any Mediterranean dish which requires higher temperatures than the ones above. In general, there is no deep frying required, sautéing and pan frying is the preferred method. Deep fried breaded shrimps (the famous Shrimp Scampi) or breaded squid rings is one of those creations where Italian food was adapted in the US to our preference for deep fried food (a pretty unhealthy habit).
Next a warning about Storage: Extra Virgin Olive Oil should be stored in a dark, cool place. Bright light and warm temperatures tend to degrade the oil quickly. Find the coolest and darkest spot in your home. Don’t put it in the fridge, though!
What type to use:
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: In general I prefer to use it only in dishes where its texture and flavour enhance the dish. To buy good, unadulterated extra virgin olive oil requires knowledge, trust and a bit of money. There is so much fraudulent ‘extra virgin olive oil’ around. You might have heard about the two class action suits filed in Federal Court in California against Bertoli and Deoleo.
Choosing the right olive oil is a matter of taste and purse. Should you be in an olive growing area you might want to do some tasting, like with wine. Most producers are set up for olive oil tasting. Read more about Olive Oil: how to taste it.
In terms of style, I would go for:
- a medium-fruity type for everyday use (cooking, salad dressing) – like the Kirkland Signature Select Toscano from Costco, the California Olive Ranch Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil or the Oleoestepa Seleccion from Spain (available on the internet in the US), all of them in a reasonable price range
- a highly fruity type, like a green extra virgin olive oil for drizzling over dishes and into soups and sauces, like the Greek Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Trader’s Joe with an excellent price/quality.
Refined Olive Oil: When frying foods or subjecting them to high heat, extra light olive oil is my choice of cooking oil. Extra virgin olive oil gives you little additional benefits in this situation as many of the beneficial micro ingredients vanish at high heat. So you are just wasting a lot of money using extra virgin olive oil.
Where to buy:
Relatively easy in Europe, as you can either order it via the Internet or buy it directly from a reputable olive oil mill should you vacation in a Mediterranean region. As I am in the Provence once a year that’s what I do. I always bring one or two bottles of my favorite extra virgin olive oil from Moulin Jean Marie Cornille, the cooperative in Maussane les Alpilles in the Provence.
In the US and Canada it’s more complicated and a lot more expensive. So here is what I would do:
A 2012 Consumer Reports review of extra virgin olive oil rated as excellent and very good: McEvoy Ranch, Trader Joe’s California Estate, O-Live and Co, B.R.Cohn California, Lucini Premium, Kirkland Signature Select Toscano (Costco), 365 Everday Value 100% Californian Unfiltered (Whole Foods) and California Olive Ranch.
If you want to go for the top brands, take a look at the results of the annual International Olive Oil Competition in New York, where nearly 700 olive oils from 25 countries are evaluated by an international jury of experts.
Another good source is the annual competition of the California Olive Oil Council.