Why you should be cooking with extra virgin olive oil

Why you should be cooking with extra virgin olive oil

by Great British Chefs 25 August 2020

It’s a myth that extra virgin olive oil should only be used for finishing, drizzling and dipping – cooking with it means tastier results in the kitchen. Take a look at how it can make all the difference to your dishes, plus three summery recipes that showcase its fruity, peppery flavour.

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Oil is an integral part of cooking in cuisines all over the world. It’s incredible at absorbing and carrying other flavours, as well as teasing out and amplifying the taste of other ingredients that are cooked in it. Oil also helps prevent foods sticking to the base of the pan, and assists with the Maillard reaction – that magical process that gives food its golden brown crust and creates that delicious ‘fried’ taste. Almost all recipes these days begin by drizzling oil into a pan, and invariably they call for olive oil – that quintessential Mediterranean ingredient which is fruity, peppery, complex and rich all at once.

For whatever reason, however, many home cooks believe extra virgin olive oil (the cold-pressed, higher quality, more flavourful oil) should only be used in its raw state or for finishing dishes. The myth that heating or cooking with extra virgin olive oil destroys its flavour or makes it unhealthy has been floating around for years now, but there’s no real evidence behind the belief.

While it’s true that olive oil has a lower smoke point than the likes of sunflower, vegetable and rapeseed oil, it’s still high enough to roast and sauté with. The smoking point of extra virgin olive oil is between 170°C and 180°C – this means it’s perfectly fine to cook with, unless you’re reaching the smoking point when heating your pan (for example by leaving it on a very high heat for a long time).

The three recipes below prove that you should be cooking with extra virgin olive oil, even when frying at high temperatures. It goes without saying that the better quality your olive oil is, the tastier the dishes will be, so there’s no reason to stock up on lesser-quality refined olive oil for cooking with and only using extra virgin olive oil in dressings and dips.

Poached egg with mushrooms a la Grecque and olive oil crisps

Oils of all kinds are amazing flavour carriers, but because extra virgin olive oil has such an incredible flavour of its own, it’s ideal for combining with other Mediterranean aromatics. In this dish, mushrooms are gently sizzled in plenty of extra virgin olive oil that’s been infused with garlic, thyme, bay, lemon zest and a touch of chilli, before being left to cool to room temperature. Paired with a poached egg for added richness, the cheffy touch to this dish is the olive oil crisps on top – a simple combination of stock, olive oil, flour and water, fried at a high temperature until lacy, crisp and incredibly delicate.

Olive oil-poached trout and broccoli with chickpea pancakes

Extra virgin olive oil is used in several different ways to create this recipe. First, it’s heated to 60°C to gently confit the trout, giving the fish a boost of flavour and an incredible, flaky texture. Second, it’s used to fry the broccoli at a high heat, charring the florets whilst imparting its inimitable Mediterranean flavour onto the veg. Third, it’s whisked into a silky mayonnaise (a sauce that’s usually made with sunflower or vegetable oil), and finally it’s mixed into the batter for the chickpea pancakes. It’s the perfect dish to show how versatile extra virgin olive oil can be.

Chilled melon and olive oil soup with ‘nduja toast and oregano

Extra virgin olive oil is drizzled over bread before toasting over a high heat in this dish, but it really sings in flavour when blitzed with oregano leaves and a touch of lemon zest, to create a wonderful oil for drizzling over the chilled melon soup. An ideal dish for enjoying in the sun, the fruity flavours of the oil match perfectly with the sweet melon and herbaceous oregano to create an easy, refreshing soup that has the unmistakable flavour of extra virgin olive oil throughout.