If There’s Smoke, It Doesn’t Mean You’re Olive Oil is Burning

Chef friends we work with suggested we write more about frying foods in extra virgin olive oil. So we’ll talk about frying crab. But first we’ll talk about  what it means when a good EVOO begins to smoke. It’s important to note that unless your oil is above 400 degrees Fahrenheit, that smoke you’re seeing is not the EVOO breaking down, according to experts.

“It’s the olive particles (in the oil) you see burning,” says Greg Strickland, executive chef for Vi, the upscale senior living center chain formerly known as Classic Residence by Hyatt. Strickland heads the kitchen at the Vi in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

While we take steps to remove the olive particles before we bottle our EVOO, there may be a small amount left. Those fruit particles – similar to pulp in orange juice – can really enhance the taste and flavor of the EVOO. But over time the fruit particles will eventually ferment.

Extra virgin olive oil, Strickland notes, “actually takes a very high heat.”

The “smoke point” at which a good extra virgin olive oil begins to break down is about 410 degrees Fahrenheit, making it suitable for sautéing, roasting, and frying.

Chemistry plays a role here.

EVOO is high in healthful monounsaturated fats. Chemically speaking, these are fats that have one double-bonded carbon in the molecule. By contrast, polyunsaturated fats — found in sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed oils — have more than one double-bonded carbon. That makes these oils more prone to breakdown, according to experts.

“Olive oil is quite stable compared to other oils,” says Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Strickland is a big fan of using extra virgin olive oil in his cooking. “Almost all of our shallow frying and sautéing is with extra virgin olive oil,” says Strickland.

When we asked him for a recipe that involves frying, Strickland shared one for shallow fried soft-shelled crab. He accompanies the crab with a spicy sweet pepper purée on the side. The dish is finished with a citrus vinaigrette.

To begin, soak the crab in buttermilk for an hour and then dredge it in seasoned flour. Experts say the buttermilk helps makes the crab plump when cooked.

To fry the crab, heat a third of a cup of EVOO to 325 degrees F in a frying pan. (That’s well below the 410 degree F smoke point.) Carefully place the crab in the pan and shake the pan gently to prevent the crab from sticking. Fry for 2 minutes or until the crab begins to crisp, and then turn. Fry a minute longer and remove from the EVOO, which can be reused or strained and stored in the refrigerator for later use.

Bon appétit,

Claude S. Weiller
Vice President of Sales & Marketing
California Olive Ranch