Some oils are good for cooking, while others are best reserved for salads and other cold dishes. The olive oil smoke point helps answer the common (and often misunderstood) question of: Can you cook with olive oil? The answer may surprise you!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Myths Vs Facts
A lot of "health experts" argue that high-quality olive oil should not be used in cooking. The persisting myth goes that high heat will ruin some of olive oil's health benefits. But what does the science say? Short answer: Yes, you can cook with olive oil. It is safe and beneficial to your health. Long answer: There are many aspects that determine if a certain oil is safe for cooking. While olive oil is generally resistant to heat, some oxidation will happen. However, this is still preferable to other cooking oils. Let's discover why!
What Happens On Your StoveThere are three main cooking methods that require oil:
- Pan frying
- Deep frying
- Baking and roasting
The average temperature for pan frying (also known as sauté-ing on a stove top) is around 120 °C (248 °F). This is when you oil a pan and throw the products in. You can think of pan frying as the middle ground between baking and deep frying. It gives you a crust but it doesn't require as much oil, or as much heat, as deep frying. In deep frying, the product is submerged in hot fat. Because fats can conduct heat very effectively, the food cooks evenly on all sides and forms a deliciously crunchy crust. On the downside, this means that the temperature is much higher. Deep frying happens at temperatures around 160 - 180 °C (320 °F - 356 °F). \ Finally, baking is the most heat-intensive method of preparing food. Some ovens can reach up to 240 °C (475 °F). This, of course, is very hot and very rarely used. For the most part, we can accept baking and roasting to happen at around 180-190°C (350 - 375 °F).
Olive Oil Smoke Point: What Does That Even Mean?
The smoke point is the temperature at which oil starts emitting a bluish smoke. It's not the smoke that should bother you, though. Heated past their smoke point, oils begin to break down. They react with the oxygen in the atmosphere and free radicals are produced. Not only does this ruin the flavour, but it is also potentially harmful, even cancer-causing to humans. Now let's talk chemistry!
What's In A Bottle Of Olive Oil?This is the nerdy part of the article. Feel free to skip ahead, if chemistry is not your forté. Bear in mind, though, that to understand smoke points and choosing oil for cooking, you do need some chem background. I promise I will keep it simple! The main component of oil are chemical compounds called triglycerides. A triglyceride is made up of a glycerol backbone and three fatty acids attached to it (hence the name). The glycerol is not very interesting, in terms of the oil quality. The fatty acids, on the other hand, are extremely important. What is in a fatty acid? You have a long hydrocarbon chain (literally little atoms of hydrogen and carbon bound together), and an acid group. The "acid" part of the molecule gives off hydrogen ions and this is what determines the pH of an olive oil. Not all fatty acids are attached to glycerol. A small portion of them is completely free-flowing. The amount of free fatty acids (FFA) determines how acidic the oil will be. This has two important consequences:
- The more acidic an oil is, the lower the smoke point (a.k.a. the olive oil will be more susceptible to chemical damage)
- Extra virgin olive oil, which has the lowest FFA of all olive oils, is the best for high-heat cooking
The free fatty acids are not the only thing that determines the olive oil smoke point. They only make up up to 1% of the oil. The other fatty acids are already attached to glycerol. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of ways to damage them. There are three types of fatty acids. These depend on the bonds between carbon atoms in their molecule. Since the acid is attached to glycerol with the acidic group, the hydrocarbon part is still open to reactions. Depending on these bonds, fats can be:
- Saturated - they only have single bonds between carbon atoms. It's very hard for them to react with other compounds because single bonds are strong and difficult to break down.
- Monounsaturated - there is only one double (or triple) bond in the entire molecule. The second bond is easier to break down. However, since monounsaturated fats have a fairly large molecule, the compound as a whole is not very reactive.
- Polyunsaturated - unsurprisingly, these fatty acids have multiple double/triple bonds. This makes them much more vulnerable to reactive substances.
Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats. These fats are fairly stable. They need very high heat to make them react with oxygen. This means the olive oil smoke point goes up - at low temperatures, monounsaturated fats are not reactive and will not break down.
Antioxidants In Olive Oil
The third big reason while the olive oil smoke point is so high has to do with antioxidants. The major reason why heat ruins oils is it makes them react with oxygen. Olive oil is already very resistant to that because it's rich in monounsaturated fats. To top this off, olive oil is also rich in antioxidants. The antioxidant content of this oil makes it even more stable. These compounds pick up reactive oxygen radicals. This way, even at a high heat, the overall reactivity of olive oil is reduced. Or, in simpler words: Antioxidants prevent olive oil from changing structure even in high heat.
Olive Oil Smoke Point (s?)The smoke point is determined by chemical structure. However, it is not an exact number. Even though other factors matter much less, they still affect the olive oil smoke point. Here are some of those factors:
- The volume of oil that you use (paradoxically, it's higher for deep frying)
- The size of the container (the deeper your pan, the higher the smoke point)
- Air currents (in ovens with a ventilator the smoke point is lower)
- The type and source of light (UV light damages olive oil, that is why it's best kept in tinted bottles)
Finally, the most important determinant of olive oil smoke point is oil quality. Once again, extra virgin olive oil is the champion. These are smoke points of different olive oils: Refined olive oil: 199-243°C (390-470°F) Virgin olive oil: 210°C (410°F) Extra virgin olive oil, low acidity, high quality: 207°C (405°F) As you can see, even refined olive oil has a high enough smoke point to allow deep-frying and roasting at high temperatures. Of course, extra virgin olive oil is the best to use... but maybe not for the reason you expect.
Olive Oil Smoke Point Is Just A Number
The olive oil smoke point is useful to help you decide whether to use it or not. Beyond the smoke point, the olive oil loses its' benefits and it can even become harmful. But there are a lot of other factors that go into choosing an oil. Just because refined olive oil has a decent smoke point, it doesn't mean it will taste better. It also doesn't mean that you won't be exposed to trace amounts of chemical extractors (including harmful hexane). Finally, you will surely be missing out on the health perks of extra virgin olive oil. The one reason that does not matter here is the exact number of the olive oil smoke point: Yes, extra virgin olive oil has a higher smoke point. However, that doesn't make it "safer" for frying. As long as the oil's smoke point is above the temperature that you are cooking at, it is safe to use.
What About Grapeseed/Coconut/Avocado... Oil?
Olive oil is somewhat out of fashion. There are other fad foods that come into the spotlight. But did you know that grapeseed oil is so rich in polyunsaturated fats that it can easily produce free radicals, even at low heats? As for avocado and coconut oil, granted, they are stable and resistant to heat. However, they are also mostly made up of saturated fats. Saturated fat is not the monster in the closet it once was considered to be. It is not completely safe, either. Most doctors agree that you should only consume modest amounts of saturated fats - to protect your heart and arteries while still providing the material for hormones and cell membranes. Ultimately, the olive oil smoke point is high enough to make it safe for cooking. It also possesses a bunch of additional health benefits. As the major component of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil has been shown to reduce the risk of developing and dying from heart disease. Bottom line: The olive oil smoke point is just one of the good reasons to cook with it. It's a delicious fat source, which provides tons of benefits for your body. Don't be afraid to use it in all the dishes you want!
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