I think it’s fair to call Marcella Hazan the dean — or the doyenne — of Italian food in America. Without her wise counsel, we might still be eating overcooked pasta with mountains of sauce and sprinkling it with a grated cheese-like substance from a shiny green canister. So when Marcella (calling her by her first name is as respectful as calling another celebrated cook, Julia, by hers) speaks out about Italian techniques or Italian ingredients, the rest of us had darned well better pay attention.
And speak out she did, a couple of months ago, when Harold McGee questioned the wisdom of cooking with extra virgin olive oil. McGee, the author of “On Food & Cooking,” also writes about science and food, or the science of cooking, for The New York Times, where he reported on an experiment conducted by a panel of expert tasters as part of the University of California, Davis’ olive oil research group. Four olive oils, three of them labeled extra-virgin, were heated to 350 degrees and held for five minutes, after which the panel reached the uniform agreement that they “all tasted like popcorn.” McGee’s own conclusion? Once heated, extra virgin olive oils don’t have much olive flavor left: “In fact, they didn’t taste much different from the seed oils.” Use expensive extra virgin for cooking if that’s what you want to do, McGee said, in his amiable way, but in essence it’s a waste of good oil and a waste of money.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil’s Fried Egg Test
Hazan, who has degrees in natural sciences and in biology, immediately rose to the challenge. She seemed to heave a great sigh on her Facebook page: “It was discouraging once again to see a scientist writing about cooking as a scientist,” she wrote. “You can only make sense about cooking if you write as a cook.” Yes, indeed, by the time you’ve finished cooking with extra virgin olive oil, there are not a lot of complex flavors left in the pan. But what matters, she explained, is not how the oil tastes when you’re done with it, but rather how the good flavors of a fine oil are transferred to whatever is cooked in it, whether simple vegetables, braised chicken or fish, an aromatic pasta sauce, or even a humble fried egg.
Fried egg was precisely the response McGee’s report evoked from a Tuscan oil-producer friend of mine who, as it happens, knows McGee and has sat on panels with him (though not the one at Davis): “Ah-HAH!” cried Paolo Pasquali when I asked him about McGee’s conclusion. “Obviously Harold has never fried an egg in extra virgin olive oil.”
And perhaps he has not. Perhaps it does indeed take a cook — not a chef, but a cook — to understand the difference between an egg fried in high-quality extra virgin olive oil and an egg fried in canola oil or corn oil or any one of a dozen other bland and flavorless oils on the supermarket shelf. Or indeed an egg fried in the fat left in the pan after frying bacon. Or an egg fried in butter. The humble egg fried in olive oil, like the egg in bacon fat or butter, will end up with a good deal of character and with flavors and aromas undreamed of by your run-of-the-mill egg fried in ordinary vegetable or seed oil. That’s because extra virgin olive oil, like bacon fat, like butter, has flavors of its own to transmit to whatever is cooked in it.
“What a good olive oil transfers to the food that is cooked in it,” Hazan went on to say, “is something that only a good olive oil can bestow: aroma and depth of flavor.” Just fry an egg and you’ll agree. The eggs I’m frying these days come from my neighbor’s chickens who scratch in the dust and live on a diet enriched with roots, grubs and garden bugs. But even the most ordinary hatchery egg can be transported to aesthetic heights by a bath in very hot olive oil.
Olive Oil Myths
Apart from frying eggs, however, should you cook with extra virgin? There are so many myths circulating about what olive oil does or does not do that it’s no wonder cooks are bemused by the question. Olive oil, it’s claimed, has a low smoke point. But it doesn’t at all, not when compared to other oils available, and in any case, a smoke point of 400 degrees to 410 degrees, which is where most olive oils fit, is way above any temperature at which you are going to want to cook. Deep-fat frying, according to the venerable “Joy of Cooking,” is best at 350 degrees to 360 degrees, no matter what fat you’re using.
I’ve also heard, and read on blog posts, that olive oil becomes dangerous to consume when it’s heated. I haven’t a clue where this particular myth originated but one version goes on to say that olive oil somehow turns into a trans fat when heated. This is quite impossible — trans fats are created industrially. You could no more produce a trans fat in your home kitchen than you could refine crude petroleum into gas for your car.
As a longtime user and consumer of the best extra virgin olive oil I can find, I totally agree with Hazan. A good olive oil is the best medium for all types of cooking — sauteeing, braising, roasting. It doesn’t have to be the finest oil on the market. Just as you wouldn’t use Chateau Lafite-Rothschild to make boeuf bourguignon, it would be foolish to use an expensive, freshly pressed, estate-bottled oil for deep-fat frying. There are plenty of very good, indeed excellent oils, widely available in U.S. markets, that are eminently appropriate, and they come from all over the worldwide map of olive oil, from California, Italy, Greece, Spain, even from Australia. (Two that I especially like are Gaea from Greece and Academia Barilla from Italy. But there are many others.) Buy in small quantities until you find one that particularly pleases you, then, for best value, purchase a big 3- to five-liter tin (a liter is roughly equivalent to a quart). Store the tin in a cool, dark pantry cupboard and decant half a liter or so at a time to keep within easy reach in the kitchen. That will give your oil a much longer life span.
And do use it for frying your breakfast eggs.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Photo: Fried egg drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins