Olive Oil: A Chef Challenges the Conventional Wisdom


Sara Jenkins

To try Sara's Palestinian salad with garlic-lemon-olive oil dressing, click here.

Traditionally in the Mediterranean there was really only one fat, olive oil. Usually olive oil produced by your family (I know there's lamb fat and lardo but those are more special-occasion fats, or in the case of Umbrian lardo a flavoring added to the olive oil). The olive oil was used for everything: to cook with, to drizzle on salads, to rub on your skin if it was dry. And there weren't a whole lot of grades: usually you had the current year's olive oil for salads or finishing, and then the previous year's oil was for cooking and anything else.

One of my earliest memories of food is watching my neighbor Mita deep-fry battered pieces of chicken and rabbit in olive oil. I was pretty amazed when I first started cooking in professional kitchens at what chefs who were ostensibly trying to cook authentic Italian food used. They used this awful 10 percent, which is commercially available vegetable oil with some cheap olive oil swirled in to add flavor. I never understood why anyone would buy that—I mean if that's what you thought was a good thing to use, wouldn't you just blend your own? They used pomace oil, a disgusting chemically extracted oil made from the leftover pressings from the first or second crushings at the mill. Again, why buy it? You are better off buying straight-up grapeseed oil at that point. You really aren't getting any of the benefits of the olive in pomace or 10 percent.

I buy a Greek extra virgin olive oil in bulk because bulk Italian olive oil is often not Italian and in some cases not even olive oil.

The very first thing I ever learned to make for myself was a Palestinian salad dressing of garlic and salt crushed into a paste and then lemon juice and olive oil beaten in. I used to drink the dregs of that dressing from the bottom of the salad bowl. I thought everyone knew that olive oil was what you put on your salad, so imagine my surprise when making a salad dressing at one of my first prep cook jobs I was yelled at for reaching for the olive oil. "No No NO," yelled the chef, "everyone knows olive oil is too strong for salad dressing!"

As long as I have been cooking I have cooked with extra virgin olive oil exclusively and I think its one of the things that sets me apart from other cooks. I always have to train new cooks in this—they have all been trained that cooking in olive oil can't be done (really I think, considering 3,000 years of Mediterranean cooking, just a giant mistake I guess). It ruins the oil, they say. And it's true it "ruins" the oil—the oil can't be reused, but then neither can butter. For that matter, do you ever reuse your cooking fat? When I worked in Italy professionally everyone used olive oil to cook with even if they skimped on everything else. It profoundly affects the flavor of the food. It imparts a richness and distinct flavor that also lets you leave the ingredients alone. A piece of fish sautéed in extra virgin olive oil needs nothing more than some salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. A piece of fish sautéed in highly processed vegetable oil needs butter and sauce and just stuff to make it taste good and mask the flavor of the inferior oil.

Now that I own and run my own kitchens I don't bother cooking with anything but extra virgin olive oil. I buy a Greek extra virgin olive oil in bulk because bulk Italian olive oil is often not Italian and in some cases not even olive oil. But the Greeks, they don't have the status that Italy does, so even though a lot of their oil gets sent to Italy (part of what goes into the bulk Italian cans) they actually charge a decent price for an honest product that is what it says it is. It's actually so good that I just use it for everything now. We cook with it and we make salad dressing with it and I put it on the tables with the bread. I usually have some high-end estate bottled Italian extra virgin around for people who really know their oil and understand the difference, but the Greek oil makes me very happy.

People are so confused about what to look for and how to buy it but I think it's really simple. The highest quality extra virgin olive oil should come in a light-blocking container. It should be produced and bottled on the same estate, which should be clearly labeled and marked with the harvest date, not just an expiration date. I pretty much steer clear of bulk Italian olive oil at this point, as there is just so much corruption in the production and selling of it. Then it's sort of on to flavor. I happen to like the grassy piquant kick of Tuscan or Umbrian oil, but that's what I grew up on. There are other flavor profiles from other regions of Italy that are equally good, and someone from Puglia, say, probably prefers the flavor profile of their oil. There is nothing wrong with that. The most important things are that it is what it says it is and it's no more than two years old.

Using extra virgin olive oil for everything definitely costs more, and that's a challenge, but it's sort of like using artisanal pasta extruded through bronze dies and dried slowly, or non-commodity meat. It's a step in my cooking that I believe to be so profoundly important that if I couldn't use those products I wouldn't want to cook anymore.

Recipe: Palestinian Salad Dressing (and Salad)