When chosing a cooking oil, it is important to avoid certain vegetable oils such as walnut oil or flaxseed oil. However, many people wonder if extra virgin olive oil belongs to the category of oils that should be avoided. So can you cook with extra virgin olive oil?
To determine if an oil can be used for cooking, it is necesssary to know its “smoking point”. The smoking point of an oil is the point right before the oil starts boiling to put it in a simple way or the peak at which a chemical break down of the oil starts to take place and becomes harmful to health, because of the loss of nutritional content and the creation of carcinogens. The boiling point of water is 100ºC but the smoking point of an oil depends on each type of oil. The higher the smoking point is, the safer it is to use that specific oil for cooking. As a reference point, deep frying occurs at 190ºC so an oil with a smoking point below this temperature will not be suitable for cooking.
However, it is also important to define why the smoking point of an oil is high. The smoking point of an oil is determined partly by its free fatty acidity or FAA and the lower the FAA, the higher the smoking point will be. The free fatty acidity content on the other hand can be very low or close to zero for different reasons:
– the oil has been refined, meaning it went through a chemical process
– the oil is pure and of high quality such as extra virgin olive oil and is naturally low in FFA
The smoking point of olive oil varies from source to source because each manufacturer claims their oil to be the best but the smoking point also depends on the type of virgin olive oil. Virgin olive oil is obtained by a mechanical process of the olive fruit and does not undergo any treatment or alteration. It is important to differentiate olive oils and according to the International Olive Oil Council, the definition of olive oil is as follows:
“Olive oil is the oil obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L.), to the exclusion of oils obtained using solvents or re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds. It is marketed in accordance with the following designations and definitions: Virgin olive oils are the oils obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration. Virgin olive oils fit for consumption as they are include:
– Extra virgin olive oil
– Virgin olive oil
– Ordinary virgin olive oil”
Extra virgin olive oil has a free fatty acidity ranging from 0 to 0.8% and as mentioned above, the lower the FFA, the higher the smoking point. Also, the higher the quality of the extra virgin olive oil, the lower the FAA.
On the other hand, olive oils not fit for consumption include refined olive oils that have been chemically treated, olive pomace oils that are extracted from the pulp using solvents or pure olive oils that are a mix of refined oils and extra virgin olive oils. The FFA of a refined olive oil is around 0.3% so is also low but the oil is not as natural and healthy as the extra virgin olive oil while having a similar ranging FFA.
A high quality extra virgin olive oil’s smoking point varies between 185ºC to 210ºC which makes its smoking point slightly below or higher than the deep frying temperature of 190 degree celsius so cooking food at lower temperatures which typically vary between 140ºC to 160ºC with extra virgin olive oil is actually fine and will give a nice taste to the dish. Extra virgin olive oil is also rich in monounsaturated fats (around 70%) and the ideal cooking oil should be rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (called also unsaturated fats or good fats versus saturated fats that raise cholesterol, increase heart disease rate and much more). This is why oils such as refined coconut oil, palm oil, peanut oil, even sunflower seed oil should be avoided. They may have a high smoking point but their content of saturated fats make them unhealthy, even dangerous. Another good alternative is organic avocado oil also rich in monounsaturated fats and with a smoking point of 271ºC.