My father, who grew up in Ancona, a small Italian port town about 200 miles south of Venice, once told about his first encounter with “other” types of oil:
When he was about 6 years old he went with his mother to a grocery store, and there, on the store window, was a large sign saying: “We Sell Corn Oil”.
“What”, my father asked her, “is corn oil?”
“Some people are so poor”, his mother explained, “that they cannot afford olive oil, so they use corn oil.”
That, he told me, was the first time he understood the true meaning of poverty.
My father of course told me this story with humor and a good dose of irony. As a child he might have been struck by that intense level of poverty. As an adult, he knew better. In fact, when I was growing up Israel (and for a few years in the United States), we used corn oil almost exclusively. Olive oil was either impossible to find or prohibitively expensive. My father told me this story when I was in my teens, and olive oil had slowly started being introduced into mainstream Israeli diets. But even then it was very expensive and used only sparingly, just a few drops in salad dressings. No one thought to use it in cooking. Yet his mother, known in her family as the ultimate expert in deep frying, had used no other oil.
All this is by way of saying that I have a special attachment to olive oil, and will always tend towards my grandmother’s philosophy – when in doubt, use olive oil.
There’s plenty that’s been written about olive oils, and I hesitate to repeat it, but here are a few points:
1. Yes, good, extra virgin olive oil (i.e., cold pressed and relatively unfiltered) is like good wine. There are different flavors, it can be more intense, more fruity, more bitter… Selecting it is largely a matter of taste, and in my opinion the best way to taste it is to pour a few drops on a plate and mop it up with a piece of bread. But, as with wine, you’ll reserve your best olive oil for raw use – salad dressings, garnishes, a finishing touch on cooked dishes… The requirements when it’s used as a cooking oil are different and not quite as stringent.
2. Adding a bit of good olive oil at the end of the cooking process (for example, on rice, or a ratatouille), is much better than putting it all in to cook. In fact, consider sprinkling a bit of flavorful, extra virgin, olive oil on almost any dish just before serving it. The aroma is magnificent.
3. When cooking at high temperatures (i.e., high heat saute, or frying), use a “light” olive oil. Light means that it’s been filtered, so its olive flavor is very mild. The filtering is important because the elements that give olive oil its strong and wonderful flavor unfortunately burn when you heat it. However, when filtered, olive oil has a relatively high smoking temperature, and as my grandmother knew, is entirely appropriate even for deep frying.
4. And what about health benefits? I’m always hesitant to take health claims too seriously, but if we’re to believe current thought on the subject, olive oil has two major benefits. First, extra virgin olive oil, by virtue of the complex olive elements in it, contains a multitude of antioxidants that are beneficial in much the same way as the antioxidants in red wine. Second, even filtered (i.e., “light”) olive oil, even though it doesn’t have those elements, has a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats (good) than any of the commonly used cooking oils. It has 3 times as much as corn oil, a bit more than canola oil, and more than 10 times as much as that new star, coconut oil.
But in the bottom line, why do I use olive oil? Because it still feels like a luxury to me, it feels like the only right way to cook, and because when I use a good olive oil, I have in inner sense that all is well with the world.