I use extra-virgin olive oil liberally and indiscriminately. It goes into salad dressings, marinades and the bottom of frying pans; it’s drizzled into the blender for hummus, dumped onto vegetables for roasting and smeared over cast iron pans. I love the smell, the olivey flavor and the sound my over-priced tin makes, which I bought because I loved the design and which I now decant my cheaper olive oil into.
I’ve started to realize, though, that my promiscuous ways may have a downside. The “smoke point” of an oil (the temperature at which it begins to burn and decompose) is quite low for extra-virgin olive oil (320 degrees Fahrenheit), in fact it’s 50% lower than both the more refined/processed extra-light olive oil as well as corn oil.
Why does this matter? Because at the smoke-point the oil starts to give off gaseous fumes, its flavor deteriorates and nutrients are diminished. It’s not that it’s so terrible to use an oil over it’s “smoke point”, its just that you’re no longer getting the qualities of the oil that you likely chose it for in the first place. (Though in very large quantities, a “burnt” oil can be toxic.)
As a rule of thumb, vegetable oils tend to have a higher smoke point than animal fats (you can cook corn oil at higher temps than butter), and more refined oil has a higher smoke point than less processed ones (canola olive can withstand high temps but flax seed oil can’t and “light” olive oil is more stable than the pure stuff.)
I’ve recently begun cooking with coconut oil (which has a much higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil) and I love it. Though the raw oil smells strongly of coconuts, when you cook it, it infuses a subtle sweetness into the food and does not transport you to a Caribbean beach.
Here’s the full chart of the oils – they did an excellent job so no point in recreating it. One point about the text at the top of the chart: they refer to saturated fats (butter, lard, coconut oil) as causing a rise in your cholesterol levels (with the implication being that these should be minimized.) There is increasing evidence, though, that high cholesterol is not a cause of heart disease and consuming whole foods with high levels of cholesterol (butter, eggs) do not raise ones chances of getting disease. Excessive levels of trans-fats as well as gross over-consumption of all food, presents a threat to our health, not a dollop of butter in the pan.
How are you using oils for cooking? Any interesting ones you’ve discovered?
Last Time You Had This Nutrient Was In Breast Milk (The nutritional value of coconut oil)
Sauteed Fennel with Olives (Recipe)
Photo: Extra-virgin oil olive and then the onions. © Michelle Madden
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