From high-heat cooking to the importance of extra-virginity, we tackle olive oil's most enduring myths.
Of all the things the 1980s gave us – big hair, shoulder pads, the DeLorean – some of us food-inclined types are most grateful for the introduction of olive oil to the American eating-and-cooking landscape. What a beautiful, glorious thing that was. We can thank medical reports touting its health benefits along with the emergence of all things Tuscan for olive oil’s initial popularity way back then. Nowadays, consumers in the United States use 80 million gallons of olive oil annually, making it the largest market outside Europe.
But even though we’ve been enthusiastically living our Tuscan daydreams for decades now, dunking our bread in the oily elixir and drizzling it on everything edible under the sun, there’s a lot of things we don’t know about it – or more correctly, there’s a lot of things we think we know about olive oil but that we have all wrong. Myths abound when it comes to food and health, and no less so with olive oil, although it seems pretty straightforward. Author and olive oil expert Nancy Harmon Jenkins recently inked an article about the oil for the Wall Street Journal in which she explains some of the following untruths, to which we’ve added our own:
1. Anything that isn’t extra-virgin olive oil is nearly as good extra-virgin olive oil
“Virgin,” “pure,” “fine,” “light” and just plain old “olive oil,” says Jenkins, are not worth consideration. They have been heavily refined into nothingness, a pale imitation to which some extra-virgin oil is added for color and flavor. “It’s an industrial product, made to industrial standards. If that’s all your supermarket offers, opt for one of the other oils on the shelf,” advises Jenkins.
Actually, the phrase is meaningless. Long ago, when the process was laborious and dirty, the first olive pressing did produce the best, but with modern practices the term is little more than moot – there is no hot pressing of extra-virgin olive oil, and there is no second pressing.
3. You can’t cook on high heat with olive oil
Almost everyone knows that you can’t use olive oil when cooking with high heat, except that experts say that you can – you can even deep fry with it. Because of its high polyphenolic content, extra-virgin is very stable, even more so than many other oils: extra-virgin remains stable up to about 410F degrees or a bit higher depending on how filtered it is. Which is a good 50 or 60F degrees above the ideal temperature for deep frying.
4. Leaving a bottle out on the counter by the stove is fine
Just like a good vampire, olive oil detests the light (heat, too), and in fact, if left out in a sunny window – especially in a clear glass bottle – or by the stove, it will start to deteriorate after just a few days. Your best bet is buying it in tins, or at least bottles made of dark glass, and to store it in a cool, dark place. (If you have a clear bottle for some reason, wrap it in tin foil.)
5. You can judge an olive oil by its color
Simply, no. High-quality olive oils come in all hues.
6. Good olive oil doesn’t have to cost a lot
Olive oil is separated from the juice made from crushing fresh olives. The olives are hand-harvested, pressed the same day of picking and milled locally. It costs money to make good olive oil, the price will likely reflect that.
7. The array of information on olive oil labels is all meaningless
While we’ve become accustomed to trivial information on food labels enticing us towards a selection, the labels on olive oil really do indicate some things we might want to consider. From origin and date to variety, these items suggest quality. Some labels list the free oleic acid content at the time of pressing, which indicates rancidity. (Producers of the best oil would never put a product on the market with a grade over 0.3 percent, says Jenkins, and many find even that figure too high.) Other things to look for: Endorsements like DOP, DO, DOC and PDO signify that the oil has been produced under a “protected denomination of origin,” which is an E.U. certification; likewise, the California Olive Oil Council also endorses quality products from the golden state.
8. “Best-by” dates are important
Well, they are important, but not in the way most people think. When it comes to olive oil, fresh is best – but a harvest date is how you determine the freshness of a product; look for a date indicating the most recent harvest. A best-by date can be up to 18 months after bottling, and if the olive oil was already more than a year old when bottled, which it can be, the oil could be almost three years old already.
9. Olive oil is a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids
Nope! Olive oil is so good for us; I secretly think it’s the key to immortality, but it’s not because of trendy Omega-3s. Experts believe that olive oil owes its prodigious health benefits to its high antioxidant levels, which, Jenkins says, you can taste in olive oil’s bitter and peppery notes. For Omega-3s, eat fish ... drizzled with olive oil, of course.