Cooking with Extra-Virgin? Yes!

Cooking with a top-ranked chef is an amazing learning experience, especially for a kitchen klutz like me. But when the chef is as adventurous and engaged as Maria Jose San Roman, it becomes inspirational.

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins for Women In Olive Oil (text and photos)

Chef and owner of Michelin-starred Monastrell in Alicante, and of Taverna del Gourmet, one of Spain’s top tapas bars nearby, Maria Jose is a bubbling cauldron of enthusiasms. When I visited her in southeastern Spain a few years ago, she was, as we say, totally into olive oil, happily using it throughout her menu, even naming specific oils to accompany certain dishes—a picual emulsion with Spain’s favorite fish merluza (hake), for instance, or a smooth arbequina in a hollandaise garnishing beef ribs. As a Spanish chef, of course, Maria Jose was hardly oblivious to olive oil, a foundation ingredient in most of the country’s cooking. But oddly enough she had only recently come to understand how olive oil changes with variety, terroir, climate and methods of production to create a product with an almost infinite number of variables, all of which a clever chef can put to work profitably in her kitchen. Even in Spain, the largest oil producing country in the world, there are far too many cooks, professional or not, for whom extra-virgin is. . . well, extra-virgin. So when their taste buds are challenged by comparing, say, a sharp picual with a flowery arbequina, it is truly a wake-up call: “I had no idea olive oils could be so different!” Maria Jose told me. It’s a claim I hear from far too many in the food business.

Amazing spanish chef María José San Román

Truth to tell, however, what I admire most about her cuisine is the simplicity of traditional Spanish dishes, like a tortilla española, the flat potato omelet that’s ubiquitous throughout the country (recipe here). Made with a fine extra-virgin, an hojiblanca perhaps, to give it a real boost of flavor it’s one of the most satisfying dishes I know. I serve Maria Jose’s classic version for breakfast, lunch, supper, or cut in small wedges, as a snack with a late-afternoon glass of chilled fino sherry. Once on a trip to Tuscany, she made me a sort of deconstructed tortilla, frying thin-sliced potatoes into chips, piling them in a plate, then frying a couple of eggs till they were just barely set and dropping them on the top of the potatoes. Broken up, the eggs made a wonderfully eggy-oily sauce for the chips.

So she actually fries with extra-virgin? Yes, indeed she does, like most good cooks around the Mediterranean, from Beirut to Barcelona and back again. Even deep-frying? Yes! Because of the polyphenols in extra-virgin, it is actually better, more stable, for deep-frying than other oils. Of course, you don’t use fine, hand-harvested, estate-bottled oil for deep frying, any more than you would use a Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1998 to make boeuf bourguignon. There are plenty of lesser but still excellent extra-virgins to use in the fry kettle—and to re-use a couple of times at least, as long as the oil is properly strained and stored after each use.

Sfinci siciliane fried in evoo.

I do occasionally go back on that premise of not using fine oil for frying, especially when I’m with oil producers who have it in quantities enough to bathe in. In Castelvetrano in Sicily I watched Gianfranco Becchina toast a mass of blanched almonds in his excellent Olio Verde, made from local nocellara olives. And in Beatrice Ughi’s kitchen on the island of Stromboli, I had another lesson in deep-frying, this time using a very fine Pianogrillo oil, made from Sicily’s Tonda Iblea olives—Beatrice brings it into the U.S. through her importing business, We fired up the kettle of Pianogrillo while an island friend whipped together the batter to make sfingi, fried sweetened dough shaped into dumplings and deep-fried to a crisp (you might know these better as zeppole). Crisp and crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, they were sprinkled while hot with cinnamon sugar and eaten—also while hot—almost by the handful.

So with all the cooks, professional as well as domestic, from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, urging us to fry with extra-virgin, how come so many websites, so many chefs, so many food magazines and newspapers claim you can’t cook with it? What’s that all about? “You can’t cook with extra-virgin,” they pronounce, “the smoke point is too low.” And besides, they sometimes add, heating extra-virgin converts it to dreaded transfat.

That last claim is patently wrong. Transfats are created under factory conditions, not in a home or restaurant kitchen, and it’s a complex process requiring hydrogenation. (You don’t want me to get into that.)

But the real problem with extra-virgin, and it’s almost entirely a fake problem, is that question of smoke point. All fats—bacon fat, vegetable oil, lard, butter—when they’re heated to a certain degree will begin to smoke, an indication that the oil is starting to oxidize. The smoke is not dangerous and the fat is not about to burst into flames but it’s a good idea to pay attention. I.e., don’t take a phone call from your mother as the fat is starting to smoke in the pan. That said, a wisp of smoke can be an indication that the oil is hot enough to sear the meat, the fish, the battuto of garlic-onion-parsley that’s the starting point for a soup or sauce.

But what about deep-fat frying, the way to perfection for a lot of foods, including those sfinge we were devouring on the island of Stromboli?

According to the International Olive Council (IOC), which admittedly has a vested interest in the subject, the smoke point of extra-virgin is 410ºF (210ºC). The Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils (yes! it covers all manner of edible fats) sets it a little more generously at 420ºF (215ºC). While there are indeed oils that have higher smoke points (sunflower, corn, peanut among them), exactly how hot do you want your oil to be? The Joy of Cooking, that venerable Bible of the kitchen for generations of American chefs, recommends a temperature no greater than 360ºF and most European cooking manuals agree that the equivalent of 180ºC is ideal. Any hotter than that and you risk burning the outside of the food before the inside is fully cooked. (And conversely, lower than that and any batter on the outside will absorb too much oil before the food is cooked through, making the kind of greasy product we reject, no matter what fat it’s cooked in.)

Extra-virgin olive oil in fact, because of its unique chemical composition, has much greater heat stability (thermal resistance is the technical term) than almost any other fat. A low quantity of free fatty acids (and that’s that treasured measure of quality in extra-virgin) means lower oxidation when the oil is heated.

So yes, like Maria Jose San Roman, like Beatrice Ughi, like Gianfranco Becchina, like thousands of cooks all over the Mediterranean world of healthful and delicious food, you can indeed cook with extra-virgin. And you should!

About the author: Nancy Harmon Jenkins is a food writer and journalist with a long list of publications to her credit, including books, magazines, and journalism. She divides her time between a home on the coast of Maine and an olive farm in the hills of eastern Tuscany. Nancy is the author of eight books about food, mostly about Italy and the Mediterranean, including Virgin Territory, recounting her experiences in the world of olive oil. She has been a staff writer for the New York Times food section, publications director of the American Institute of Wine & Food, and a founding director of Oldways Preservation Trust. Semi-retired, she is sitting out the pandemic in a small town in Maine and hoping to get back to Italy for this year’s olive harvest.

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