Olive Oil Primer: Cooking with EVOO and the “Smoke Point”

Photo by Alan Berger
Photo by Alan Berger

A topic we see fluttering around in cyberspace revolves around cooking with extra virgin olive oil and EVOO’s “smoke point.” It may not be the sexiest topic. But it’s a hot topic, so to speak, loaded with misinformation.

A cooking oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and smoke. A high-quality extra virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point than other oils, making it very suitable for many forms of cooking, such as frying.

So it’s wrong to say EVOO isn’t suitable for stir-frying or frying. This belief mistakenly assumes extra virgin olive oil has a low smoke point.

First, let’s clear up the misinformation about whether it’s OK to sauté, fry, roast and even deep fry with extra virgin olive oil. As I’ve noted before, cooking doesn’t destroy an EVOO’s healthful polyphenols.

“Extra virgin olive oil’s smoke point is generally given as 410 degrees Fahrenheit, which gives plenty of room for the 250-350 degrees Fahrenheit that covers most cooking,” says Karen Collins, a nutrition adviser for the American Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit which funds cancer-prevention research

Chefs, to be sure, probably have to be a bit more alert than home cooks. The burner system on a professional restaurant stove typically puts out more BTUs than your average home stove.

It’s also worth noting some extra virgin olive oils are more susceptible to burning than others.

“If your oil is cloudy in appearance that will mean particulate matter, and that will burn first,” says Nancy Ash, a trained olive oil taster and owner of the consulting firm Strictly Olive Oil.

With exception of our Olio Nuovo, which we bottle immediately after the olives are pressed, our EVOO is first placed in storage tanks.  The oil sits for a few months to allow Mother Nature to suck any remaining fruit particles to the bottom of the tanks, where any solids can be removed so they don’t go in the bottle.

Chemistry also plays a role in the smoke point. A cooking oil’s smoke point depends on the amount of “free fatty acids” in the oil.

High-quality EVOO, by the way, has low levels of the acids.

“The lower the free fatty acid content, the more stable the fat, and the higher the smoke point,” food expert Harold McGee writes in his book, On Food and Cooking (Scribner, 2004).

To be certified as genuine EVOO, the International Olive Council’s guidelines require that an olive oil must have a free fatty acid content of less than 0.8%. The California Olive Oil Council’s standards are stricter, saying a true EVOO must have an acidity level of less than 0.5%.

Our EVOO’s acidity comes in at less than 0.3%, according to lab tests.

“So pay more for a well made extra virgin olive oil with a lower acidity and it’ll reward you with significantly more degrees of heating potential,” says Australian olive oil expert Richard Gawel.  “In fact, the natural preservatives called polyphenols you find in EVOO protect it from heat degradation.”

Lasty, Gawel offers this advice when cooking with any type of oil:

“Breathing in the smoke from burnt oil (no matter what type) is a health hazard,” he says. “So watch that temperature and keep those exhaust fans on.”

Bon appétit,

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