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.”