There are two kinds of people in this world: those who cook with olive oil, and those who believe that doing so will cause cancer. No, that’s not how the saying goes? Hmm. Let’s try this again: do you cook with olive oil? Should you cook with olive oil? Whether it’s on your radar or not, this is a hotly contested question, and I fully admit to having flip-flopped around it quite a bit as a nutrition expert. Before we get into olive oil specifically, let’s address the underlying topic at hand: smoke points. Every oil has its own temperature at which it begins to smoke continuously. Smoking is an indication that it can no longer withstand the temperature and is starting to break down, which can ultimately lead to the formation of free radicals. Continuing to heat an oil beyond its smoke point can lead to it reaching its flash point, a.k.a. the temperature at which it ignites into flames. Yikes! We don’t want that. So the question is: what is olive oil’s smoke point? You would think this would be easy to find out, but in fact, there is no one, single answer. Grab any two olive oils from the shelf, and you could wind up with two wildly different smoke points. Olive oils can be filtered or not, refined or not, light, extra-virgin, virgin, pure, and the list goes on. Each of these nuances affects not only the flavor, but its ability to withstand heat. Since there is no one, definitive answer, let’s consider the pros and cons of cooking with olive oil.
– The majority of the fat found in olive oil is monounsaturated, which means that it can help manage cholesterol levels. – If you add olive oil to your cooking, you can stop relying on the inflammatory oils with which we normally cook (corn, vegetable, and soybean). – A lot of resources indicate that it’s actually perfectly safe to heat olive oil, depending on the variety (we’ll get to that in a second), as high as 410 degrees Fahrenheit.
– Most resources that recommend cooking with olive oil specify that the more refined varieties have higher smoke points than their unrefined, extra-virgin counterparts. This is problematic, because it’s the extra-virgin olive oils that have most of the health benefits. – Not to open up a can of worms, but too many olive oils on the market are not what they claim to be. Are you really getting what you pay for? Really, read that article as soon as you finish this one; it’s important and too few people are talking about it. – Even if the smoke point is as high as 410 degrees Fahrenheit, that still leaves plenty of cooking for which olive oil is poorly suited: grilling and high-temperature roasting, to be precise. It’s also entirely possible to reach these temperatures on the stovetop.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
This one has to be a big ole FLOP. It really is best used in dressings, dips, drizzled garnishes, and sauces added at the end of cooking. Look, it’s fine to add a little olive oil to a pan to quickly sauté some vegetables over medium or low heat. Really, you will survive, and it adds a very nice flavor. However, for any recipe heated above 350 degrees Fahrenheit or on the stovetop for an extended period of time, I recommend a higher-heat oil. (My favorite is avocado oil.) As for olive oil, splurge on the highest quality, most reliable bottle you can find. There are fancier ones available, but I have to give a shout-out to California Olive Ranch, because they’re totally legit (technical term) and readily available in a lot of grocery stores. (I’m not affiliated with them in any way, pinky swear.) Once you’ve chosen your bottle, store it in a cool, dark place; your refrigerator is ideal, though I’ve found that a shelf in my dining room is a solid option. That cabinet that butts up against your oven is not a wise choice. Yes, it’s a little inconvenient, but yes, it really is that important. Heat and light break down oil, turning it rancid and, you guessed it, creating more free radicals. Why bother worrying about smoke points if you’re dealing with spoiled oil in the first place? Extra-virgin olive oil may not be ideal as an all-purpose cooking oil, but its potential health benefits are uncontested. Follow this guide for storing and using it, and you won’t be disappointed.