Cooking with Extra-virgin? Yes!

My daughter Sara posts on the Atlantic food blog, mostly about operating her two restaurants in New York, Porsena and Porchetta (both on East 7th Street, if you want to try). Most recently she talked about cooking with extra-virgin olive oil.

Yes, I said cooking with it. I am constantly amazed at the lack of knowledge about olive oil in American professional kitchens. Many, many chefs believe the truism that “you can’t cook with extra-virgin olive oil.” Or you shouldn’t. Or you’ll burn down the kitchen if you try.

In my experience, most cooks and chefs right around the Mediterranean wouldn’t dream of using anything else. Here we’re told that  olive oil has “a low flash point” (flash point means when an oil will burst into flame—better to look for the smoke point, which comes before the dangerous flash point). The flash point of extra-virgin, according to a number of sources, is above, sometimes well above, 400º F. and that’s a lot hotter than you would want for a frying temperature—the venerable Joy of Cooking recommends a temperature of 365º. Anything lower than that and batter or breading will absorb oil and become greasy; anything higher and the outside may overcook before the inside is done.

I don’t do a lot of deep-fat frying but when I do, I use extra-virgin olive oil–not fine estate-bottled olive oil like what we make on our Tuscan farm because it’s too precious, but I have found over the years that cheaper but still good quality oils from Greece and Spain, usually available in big tins, make an excellent choice. One year I went back to Tuscany for Thanksgiving after a long absence and discovered a horde of forgotten oil that was at least three years old. There was just enough to fry a Thanksgiving turkey (actually a quarter of a turkey because a whole turkey was too big for our frying pot). We used the biggest pot we had, heated the oil to 365º (using a frying thermometer to be certain), lowered the hind quarter of the bird into the oil, and fried it for about 30 minutes. I have to say it was the finest turkey I’ve ever had and I’d do it again in a heart beat.

I always remember something Elizabeth David says in her wonderful (but curiously neglected) book French Provincial Cooking:

“. . . For the deep frying of fish there is no other fat to compare with [olive oil]. Nothing else makes it so crisp and crackling; and never, with olive oil, will you get that after-taste of stale fat which mars the best fried sole in even the most expensive of our restaurants. For this reason, you will nearly always find that an Italian, a Jewish or a Provençal cook will serve you with beautifully fried fish, because, traditionally, these people all use olive oil for their frying.”

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  • Reply beatrice ughi March 1, 2011 at 3:02 am

    so true!!! in the last couple of weeks we visited 22 whole foods stores in and around NYC and demoed our new harvest ev olive oils. do you know one of the most common question people asked? can you cook with ev olive oil? isn’t it dangerous??? i did not know there was such a fear in America to use good ingredeintes. cara Nancy, who started this???

  • Reply Elizabeth March 1, 2011 at 9:21 am

    Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking was one of my very first cookbooks, and remains one of my favorites!

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins March 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Interesting question, Beatrice. I have no idea how this myth started but it is prevalent and long-standing. Some people even think heating olive oil is dangerous, that it becomes a trans fat when heated, which is ludicrous but again a prevalent belief. So we just have to keep working to educate American cooks about this superb and superbly healthy ingredient.
    Elizabeth, I’m so happy to hear that. I don’t know why she has never become better known in this country. Her work is superb and, as you now, she’s truly the goddess of the kitchen in England. A difficult woman (like the best of us) but a wonderful writer with a splendid palate.

  • Reply CardamomKitchen March 4, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Great to hear olive oil produces a crispy, crackling texture. I recently spent a month in Kerala where ocean or fresh water fish is served daily. Martha the fish peddler stops by my maternal aunts house each week with fresh catch. I’ve never seen such plump, clear eyed product. My paternal aunt fries fresh sardines, pearl spot, etc, in coconut oil (redeemed in the NYT’s article published earlier this week) and my maternal aunt uses canola oil.

    My mom read that olive oil loses it’s heart-healthy qualities when heated. Can you speak to this claim?

  • Reply Amber March 30, 2011 at 12:56 am

    I’ve heard this same thing too! I always fry with olive oil but I make sure that it doesn’t reach its smoke point.

    I’ve often wondered about the health issues with over heating oil also. From what I understand olive oil, like all oil, breaks down once the temperature goes beyond the smoke point and becomes unhealthful. This may depend on the exact fatty acid type and content. I think for extra virgin olive oil it is somewhere around 400°F.

    Does that sound correct?

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins March 30, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Thanks for your comment, Amber. There’s a persistent myth about olive oil that it somehow becomes dangerous to consume once it’s been heated to an extraordinary degree. You mentioned 400 degrees F–I’m not sure how often or for what reason you would want to heat any oil to that degree, but let me post a comment from a great site for information about olive oil, Here’s what their experts have to say:

    A cooking oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and smoke. A high-quality extra virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point than other oils, making it very suitable for many forms of cooking, including frying, and cooking doesn’t destroy an EVOO’s healthful polyphenols.

    “Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point is generally given as 410 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives plenty of room for the 250-350 degrees Fahrenheit that covers most cooking,” says Karen Collins, a nutrition adviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit which funds cancer-prevention research.

  • Reply Amy T. April 5, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    I was never taught to fear cooking with olive oil, but I have been told by many chefs (and eventually absorbed it as gospel) that extra-virgin olive oil loses its rich flavor when heated, and that it’s therefore more economical to use regular olive oil for cooking and pricier evoo for drizzling. Any thoughts?

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins April 6, 2011 at 6:25 am

    It’s true, Amy, that olive oil loses much of its complexity of flavors when it’s heated (which is why any oil extracted by heat doesn’t qualify as extra-virgin) but a lot of those flavors contribute powerfully to the dish. Even an egg fried in extra-virgin gains mightily from its bath in hot oil. My upcoming post on talks about this–inspired by a series of comments by occasionally testy (rightly so!) Marcella Hazan after a column in the NYT by Harold McGee. Just as you wouldn’t use a wonderfully complex, over-the-top Burgundy or Barolo to make beef stew, you don’t want to use a super-high-quality extra-virgin for cooking. But there’s plenty of reasonably priced honest extra-virgin olive oil available to make it first choice for cooking.

  • Reply Thom May 30, 2011 at 4:14 am

    The EV discussion takes me back to 1981. A great friend of mine and huge influence on my “development ” as a foodie called with exciting news that she had tasted a new type of olive call called “extra virgin” and could see replacing the other oils in her kitchen for cooking. A week later she admitted that she was eating it raw, just dipping some good bread into it. That sounded extreme to me , olive oil had a lousy reputation in NE when I was growing up. Heavy, greasy and certainly unhealthy. No one talked about ” good “oils only less harmful oils and taste was never a consideration. But I did take my friends advice, got hooked with the rest of our food friends.
    It is as gratifying now to read the Elizabeth David quote above as it was back then. I was inspired, almost hypnotized by her prose. So if she endorsed olive oil for deep frying then I would too. And still do !
    I tried your Tunisian Orange Olive Oil cake recipe tonight for a dinner party. Fantastic ! Thanks again

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins May 31, 2011 at 6:17 am

    Thanks for your comment, Thom. It’s amazing that our awareness of extra-virgin olive oil only goes back to the 1980s. My first story about the miracle substance was in the New York Times in, I think, 1985 or 86. That’s where I described the American visitor to Tuscany who asked olive guru Maurizio Castelli if those were extra-virgin trees she could see from her hotel window or just regular olives! We’ve come a long way.

  • Reply Stephanie McElhaney October 19, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first press of the olives and, therefore, has the most flavor. Consequently, it’s the most expensive. Pure olive oil comes from a later press and is processed (including heating) to give it a more acceptable flavor. Because it has less flavor, the demand is lower, causing it to cost less. Heating extra virgin olive oil essentially kills what makes it special and defeats the purpose of spending extra money for it. That’s the reason you shouldn’t cook with it, not the myth about it being dangerous. (Btw, I’m a chef who plans vacations around learning more about my craft. I learned a lot about olive oils when I visited an olive orchard in Spain, the country who exports more olive oil than any other in the world.)

  • Reply nancyharmonjenkins October 19, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Stephanie. Actually, however, I need to correct the impression that there are several pressings of olives to make oil. There is really only one–and in most cases it isn’t even an actual pressing, but rather a centrifugal extraction. Extra-virgin olive oil is extracted mechanically and must fulfill certain parameters (free oleic acid content of less than 0.8%, less than 20 ppm of peroxides) plus be judged without defects in a controlled panel tasting. If the oil fails to meet the extra-virgin standards, then it is rectified, rendering an odorless, tasteless, colorless oil to which a small amount of extra-virgin is added to give it character. This is what is sold as “pure olive oil” (a very misleading name) or just plain olive oil. Heating extra-virgin olive oil is fine since it drives the flavors of the oil into the product (eggs, for example) that is being cooked in it. And extra-virgin olive oil, contrary to a widely circulated myth, does NOT have a low smoke or flash or burning point. On the contrary. The polyphenols in the olive oil protect it against damage when it is heated. I follow traditional cooks and chefs throughout the Mediterranean, including Spain, and never cook with anything else.
    Please come visit us at Villa Campestri in Tuscany to learn more about choosing and using extra-virgin. See my web site,, or for more information about our programs.

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