Are You Cooking With Olive Oil?


Which type of olive oil is best?

If you’re still cooking with corn or canola oil or just hadn’t heard, olive oil comes in several different grades, is great for sautéing, and can even be used as a substitute for butter in baking.  Perhaps more important, as far as fats go, olive oil is good for you.


It Really Is Better


According to the Mayo Clinic, olive oil is high in mono-saturated fats, and a diet high in these fats is more likely to provide certain health benefits than one higher in saturated or trans-fats.  For example, it may help to lower your total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (also known as LDL or “bad”) cholesterol.  And according to Wikipedia, olive oil contains a wide variety of anti-oxidants not contained in other oils and these may ward off certain cancers.


The best grade of oil is Extra Virgin.

Olive oil comes in a variety of grades and packaging.

A Pressing Matter


Olive oil comes from green olives.  To obtain the oil, the olives are pressed.  The best grade of olive oil is known as “Extra Virgin” and comes from the first pressing of the olives.  In the first pressing, no heat or chemicals are used to extract or refine the oil, thus Extra Virgin is considered the purest form of olive oil and considered the healthiest for eating.  One should note, however, that even this pure form of olive oil varies in quality.  Quality depends on such factors as the quality of the olives used, the region they were grown, the oil’s age and how it is shipped and stored.  This means the differences can be substantial.



Press And Press Again


Take away the word “Extra” and any olive oil labeled “Virgin” comes from the second pressing of grapes.  It is therefore considered of slightly lesser quality than Extra Virgin oil.


More Or Less Refined


Oils labeled without the Virgin distinction will be some combination of refined and unrefined grades and will have had some processing and filtering.  Processing can involve the use of heat or chemicals to adjust taste and color.


Mild Flavor


“Extra Light” olive oil undergoes considerable processing and will often appear much lighter in color.  The extra processing means it retains only a very mild olive flavor.  While extra light oil still contains beneficial mono-saturated fats and has the same number of calories, it is less easy to determine how much the added processing affects the oil’s other characteristics, especially as compared to Extra Virgin oil.  However, according to this post at Science Daily at least one study has shown that Extra Virgin oil contains more heart healthy benefits than the other versions of the oil.


What’s The Rule On Frying?


Use extra light if you want a milder taste.

Turns out you can use extra virgin for frying at medium or low heats.

Quite some time ago, a friend suggested that when frying with olive oil, only use the Extra Light variety.  My research now makes the issue less clear to me.  It turns out, that Extra Virgin is perfectly okay for sautéing or even frying, but it has a lower smoke point than the Extra Light version of the oil and that could be important.  That means you can use Extra Virgin for frying, but the temperature at which you intend to fry becomes a factor in deciding whether Extra Virgin or Extra Light is better.


Now, if you are unfamiliar with smoke point, it’s the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke and break down.  This can affect both the oils taste and potential health benefits.  It therefore makes less sense to use Extra Virgin when frying at a higher heat since some of those benefits may just burn up in smoke.  And as Extra Virgin is more expensive than other grades or oils, it may be far less economical to use for this purpose at any rate.


Smoke Point


So how does olive oil stack up against other grades of oil for smoke point?  Let’s take a look at some of the most popular oils marketed:  (Source Wikipedia)


Corn Oil – Unrefined 352 Degrees F.

Corn Oil – Refined 450 Degrees F.

Canola Oil – Refined 400 Degrees F.

Canola Oil – Oleic 475 Degrees F.

Olive Oil – Extra Virgin 375 – 405 Degrees F (depends on quality)

Olive Oil – Extra Light 468 Degrees F.


As this information shows, olive oil holds up very well in terms of smoke point when compared to both corn and canola oils.  One major difference, however, is that in its virgin and extra virgin state, olive oil is also more likely to carry a distinct flavor.  This could make cooking or baking with it a matter of taste—meaning it may be appropriate in some recipes and not in others.


Oil And Butter


Sometimes  a combination of oil and butter is best.

Use a smaller quantity of oil than butter when substituting in a recipe.

I often use Extra Light olive oil for frying and baking with excellent results.  Its mild flavor allows me to replace butter altogether in some of my recipes.  I should also point out that when I substitute I use less oil than butter in my recipes.  Generally, I use a little less than 3/8 of a cup of oil to ½ a cup of butter—for more precise conversion suggestions, see this chart at


By the way, many of my cooking friends like to combine butter with olive oil when cooking as they believe the combination tastes better than either one on its own.  The thing you want to avoid is to end up using more fat overall.


Storing It


How long is olive oil good for?  It varies.  Its age and how its stored make a big difference.  Olive oil should generally be used up within a year or so from the time it’s been harvested.  Before you buy a bottle, check the “best by” date on the labeling—look for another brand or bottle if you’re only a couple months shy of the date.


It’s also best to store olive oil in a cool dark place (the ideal temp is about 57  to 70 degrees and a consistent temperature is better).  Olive oil can be refrigerated.  It can cloud up when refrigerated, but the cloudiness should disappear as the oil warms back up to room temperature.


Finally, like wine, olive oil is also affected by oxidation (or exposure to air).  This means it’s better to keep a small bottle around for cooking than a large one.  If you buy a bulk size, consider pouring some oil into a smaller container as you use it.  That way, you’ll only need to open the large container on a rare occasion.


Much More


For more information on olive oil including its various uses and benefits, check out these sites:

Can you really use olive oil instead of butter in baking?  You bet!  Read:
A Hearty Twist On Chocolate Chip
A Chocolate Cake A Man Can Bake


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