Are You Using Your Olive Oil Wrong?

Here's how to use the right fat in your cooking.

Olive Oil Pouring Into Dish
Photo: Getty/fcafotodigital

Since at least as long as Rachael Ray coined the short-hand EVOO, olive oil has been a kitchen staple. It's touted for its healthy omega 3's and is the foundation of many Mediterranean dishes. Although it's a flavorful oil used in everything from caesar salad dressing to cakes (and is even great for cleaning), olive oil has its limitations and isn't always the best option when cooking. From the different types of olive oil to its low smoke point, we breakdown all you need to know about cooking with this popular fat and when it's time to reach for something else.

First Off, You're Probably Storing It Wrong

Olive oil needs to be stored in an airtight, dark container away from heat and light to avoid spoilage. Those pretty clear glass olive oil containers may be stylish, but they aren't practical. Store olive oil in its original dark-colored bottle or opt for opaque decorative containers. It's important to also store your olive oil in the pantry, not on the countertop where it will be exposed to heat, which can make it go rancid.

Use The Right Kind Of Olive Oil For The Task

There are four main types of olive oil and each is used differently in cooking. Getting to know all the varieties will ensure you're using the right one for the task at hand.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You're likely most familiar with this variety. It is the least processed form of olive oil and the most flavorful. You'll often see it advertised as "cold-pressed," which indicates it was made without heat or chemicals. Instead, olives are ground into a paste and pressed to extract the oil. It's a time consuming process, but it yields a deep green oil with a peppery bite and fruity aroma. It also comes with a higher price tag.

Virgin Olive Oil. This variety is similar to extra virgin, but is slightly lower in quality and therefore price. It is made without heat or chemicals, but is less flavorful than extra virgin olive oil. It is also pretty hard to find in U.S. grocery stores.

Pure Olive Oil. Also just called olive oil, this kind of oil is a mix of refined olive oil (extracted with heat or chemicals) and virgin olive oil. It doesn't have a strong flavor and is lighter in color, but is a good all-purpose cooking oil.

Light Olive Oil. Light olive oil is a refined form of olive oil that is very neutral and light in flavor. Don't be fooled, it isn't any lower in calories, but it does have a higher smoke than other olive oil varieties.

When Not To Use Olive Oil

Not every cooking task calls for olive oil, here's when you shouldn't use it:

Don't Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil For Cooking.

While many think that cooking with high quality extra virgin oil is the best choice, this kind of olive oil is actually better suited for anything but cooking. Expensive EVOOs are meant to be savored in their purest form and that means unheated. When uncooked, you'll be able to taste all the nuanced flavors of the oil in way you can't once it's been heated.

Use high-quality extra virgin olive oils for finishing dishes like soups, pastas, and salads, or for dunking bread. EVOO is also great for dressings and dips. Virgin, pure olive oil, or light olive oil are all better for everyday cooking, especially when sauteing or roasting. They all have less flavor, but are also less expensive and are great for applications where you aren't looking for a strong olive oil taste. Affordable extra virgin olive oils can be used for everyday use, just don't spring for the good stuff only to use it for sauteing.

Don't Use Olive Oil For High-Heat Cooking.

All cooking oils have what is called a "smoke point," the temperature at which the oil starts to break down and smoke. And where there's smoke, there will soon be fire. This is why extra virgin olive oil, which has a low smoke point of 350°F to 410°F, shouldn't be used for high heat cooking, especially frying. Most foods are fried in oil between 350 °F and 400°F, so choose an oil with a high smoke point above 400°F, like vegetable oil or peanut oil, to be safe. Light olive oil does have a much higher smoke point and can be used for pan-frying, but neutral oils are cheaper and better for deep frying.

Don't Use Olive Oil In Place Of Neutral Oils (For The Most Part).

Olive oil, especially the good stuff, has a delicious, but quite strong flavor. Recipes that call for a neutral oil, do so for a reason. Neutral oils, like canola or vegetable oil, impart little or no taste and are used in cooking when a fat is needed, but not for flavor. Since olive oil isn't neutral, its flavor can easily overwhelm a dish. Sometimes it's a welcome addition, like in some cake batters, but other times a neutral oil is best, particularly when you want other flavors to dominate. That said, light olive oil can often be used in place of neutral oils as it has a much more subdued olive flavor.

Don't Swap Olive Oil For Butter When Baking.

It's best to avoid using olive oil for butter when it comes to baking. In recipes where the butter is creamed, olive oil can't replace the butter without affecting the texture of the baked good. Since beating the butter incorporates air into baked goods, using olive oil instead can yield dense results. If the recipe calls for melted butter, you can substitute olive oil, but remember that the olive flavor will come through in the final product, especially if you use extra virgin olive oil.

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