Smokin’ Hot: Are You Cooking With Extra-Virgin Olive Oil?

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?

Related Posts
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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  • Jillian

    I’ve often wondered if paying more for the much higher priced olive oils is worth it … I’m beginning to believe that once you’re in the “extra virgin” category, they’re all pretty close.

    • Stoney

      @Jillian

      I don’t think that’s quite true but I understand your point. For example, I use Frantoia olive oil for salad dressings, drizzling, etc. and the flavor, for me, is outrageously good. I first discovered it in Italy and was lucky enough to find it locally. Anyway – the flavor is distinctly different, and more impressive, than the Extra Virgin that I use to cook with. The price difference is noticeable but I don’t use a ton of the Frantoia on weekly basis and to me, it’s worth it. BUT, that might not be the case for everyone. I might just be a little bit of an oil (and salt and yogurt) snob! =) I really think it’s mainly about preference.

      However, the issue of smoke point IS very valid – though I still use Extra Virgin for day-in, day-out cooking. You can add a little butter to extra virgin to raise the smoke point a bit but if I’m cooking at a really high temp (searing meat or whatnot), you’re absolutely better off with a Virgin or a vegetable of some sort.

  • Jenny Desmond

    This article makes me want to pick up some Avocado Oil…, I bet that’s delicious! I already use Grapeseed oil for all cooking and it works great. Often I will drizzle Olive Oil on a dish to finish it.

  • Juliana

    Very instructive, thanks Michelle.

  • http://prasadabeauty.com Lisa G

    I read a study that stated that many NON organic olive oils totally lie about being extra virgin and that they blend non-virgin in with them. Many are recognizable grocery story brands. Once again ONLY organic becomes acceptable!

    • Ashley

      I read this recently too. The article specifically said that the US doesn’t monitor imported oils from the EU but that if you buy California olive oil that says extra virgin it is because that is monitored. So I’ve been sticking to Whole Foods organics and CA EVOO.

  • Ashley

    I mostly use olive oil. However, I also use grapeseed oil because of its supposedly high burning point, and extra virgin coconut oil which really shouldn’t have such a bad rap.

  • http://sunshineanddesign.com/ Sunshine+Design

    Hello there, I’m a new reader and really love your blog! Perhaps you’ve covered this, but I’m wondering your thoughts/research on coconut oil. I’ve heard there are many health benefits to using it. I’ve used it to make gluten free chocolate chip cookies and was really impressed.

    • Michelle

      Check out this post on coconuts and coconut oil here.

  • Kelly

    Definitely, grape seed or coconut and sometimes a spot of sesame for cooking and of course butter. Rarely do I heat olive oil, mainly use it to finish of a dish, you can actually taste it then. NEVER, corn, soy, or canola…99.9% chance its GMO…BIG NO NO!! Coconut IS actually good for you I LOVE to saute asparagus with a pinch of grey salt…MMMMMM!!

  • Informed cook!

    This is infuriating…it’s common knowledge that EVOO has a lower smoking point but to suggest not cooking with it is absurd! If you know how to cook properly, EVOO will never get close to its smoking point…most home cooks get nowhere close to the proper temp for ideal cooking, which is typically 320 degrees for caramelizing. I think it’s irresponsible to disseminate incorrect information through a blog and make ridiculous suggestions such as not to cook with EVOO! If the oil you are using, any typ of oil, is smoking in your pan, then you need to dump it and start over, it’s that easy to know when you’ve gone too far…..GET INFORMED before blogging about something you know nothing about apparently!

    • Michelle

      Hi–
      I appreciate you trying to enlighten readers and taking the time to leave a comment, but I felt compelled to say a few things:

      - Though it may be common knowledge to YOU that EVOO has a lower smoke point, it is most certainly NOT common knowledge to most
      - If someone is browning meat for example or they leave hot oil in pan and forget it for a few minutes, it certainly CAN get above 320 degrees (though i agree with you that in most cases, the temps we cook at are lower)
      - I take great pride in being extremely informed about everything I write and in this case even showed a direct link to the table of cooking oils (a table compiled by the Harvard School of Public Health)
      - If you have issues with any posts on the site, I encourage you to raise them, but i would request that you please do it in a courteous, respectful manner.

      Thanks
      Michelle

  • Informed cook!

    It was not my intention to be rude or disrespectful. I am extrememly passionate about food and cooking and this struck a nerve. This was the first time I read your blog and after my reponse I went on to read a few others you have archived (the kale and sugar blogs). You have lots of good information to share!

  • Jen

    Sunflower oil!

  • http://6512andgrowing.wordpress.com/ 6512 and growing

    I mostly use coconut oil for cooking, olive for roasting, and sesame when I can afford it in sauces.

    Thanks, I am getting more and more attached to your fine blog.

  • Dionne

    Carotino Oil is another one to try for cooking, I use this and keep the EVOO for dressing and on already cooked dishes. Although I saw an ealier post warning against this, Kelly – are you able to elaborate, as I’ve only read good things about this so far.

    On the plus side it is low cost, on the negative it is REALLY orange and I don’t always want orange food! ;-)

  • http://pollyfoofoo.blogspot.com jen

    i use grapeseed oil for any high-heat cooking. it leaves no taste at all and can handle the heat.

  • http://www.turnontolife.com Curtis G. Schmitt

    Please be sure to mention hydrogenation when recommending cooking with vegetable oils. Many are hydrogenated already during processing, and they all hydrogenate at high temperatures like when frying. In my opinion, it’s best to stay away from vegetable oils like corn and canola. I stick with EVOO at low temperatures and organic butter for higher temperatures. Mostly I try to eat vegan, so I avoid cooking in ways that require butter.

  • ctb

    Another new reader here – thanks for all the interesting & helpful info!
    & I only recently learned not to use EVOO for high heat cooking/frying. I buy organic canola & lately have been using Spectrum organic high-heat sunflower oil. Some oils helpfully have a temp. chart on their labels.

  • Stefania

    Extra Virgin olive oil has its smoke point at 406 F….

  • A

    I love using clarified butter, but it’s a pain to make and pre-made (ghee) is expensive. Been meaning to try coconut oil.

    As for the EVOO, Olave Organic Nocellara is unbelievable. I could almost drink it out of the bottle.

  • blue

    And all this time I’ve been using EVOO for frying eggs. Though to be fair, frying eggs is the only thing I cook and there’s a couple bottles of EVOO around, so I have to use it for something. Thanks for the heads up; I didn’t even realize cooking oils had a taste.

    • Michelle

      Try cooking eggs in coconut oil — you will never go back …

      • rsyla

        Hi Michelle. You do a very nice job with this blog and I appreciate it so thank you. But I’m a bit confused about the difference between cooking with olive oil and coconut oil. Did you notice EVOO has a smoke point of 320 and coconut of only 350? I’ve been of the same mind as you, using coconut oil for higher heat cooking but the difference seems so small. Are they really that different?

        • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

           It’s a good point and I hadn’t looked at this chart for a little while to realize how close they appear to be on the actual smoke point.  Coconut has an edge on that front but more importantly, even at the higher heats, c-oil doesnt lose its flavor at all.  I find even on low heat, EVOO loses most of its flavor.

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

       They def do, but many oils lose their taste almost entirely when cooked so you’d never know!

  • Culinary Apprentice

    Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a smpoke point of 437 F, but thats good EVOO, not cruddy ones. The reason for the most part that it isnt used in commmercial kitchens is because it is too expensive.