Olive oil is one of the keys to the very healthy Mediterranean diet, so people always have many questions about how to cook with it. It is a very versatile oil and it has many unique flavors and aromas. You can use different olive oils for sautéing, stir frying, deep frying and browning, among many other uses.
It is a good idea to think about olive oils just like you would think of different types of wine. You can use strong extra virgin olive oil to cook fish, meat, create marinades or drizzle on peppers and garlic. You can use a medium extra virgin olive oil for mozzarella or for dipping bread. It also is very tasty on steamed vegetables and on a baked potato. A more mellow extra virgin oil might be used to make cakes or to make mayo.
Remember that heating olive oil too much will cause the alcohols in it to evaporate and it will lose much of its lovely taste and fragrance. If you want to fry with olive oil, you should choose a light olive oil that does not have that much flavor to start with. You then can add an olive oil with more flavor after most of the cooking is done.
If you want to keep your olive oil tasting fresh, remember that the oil can become oxidized if it is exposed to oxygen, heat and light. At that point it can even become rancid and unusable. That is why you want to keep the oil in a dark place at room temperature. A bottle of extra virgin olive oil can last as long as two years if it is properly stored.
Remember that once you open your bottle, the process of oxidation starts to occur faster and the oil will degrade quickly.
One really interesting thing to do with your olive oil at home is to infuse it with wild herbs, or herbs from your garden. How intense the flavors are will vary with the season and what herbs you are using. When you put herbs in the oil, it will pick up the flavor of the herb within a few hours. Flavored olive oils are great gifts, but you need to be careful because there are ways to infuse oil that are not safe!
For instance, you should not put anything in the oil that has any amount of water or moisture. This includes garlic, peel of lemon, peppers and any fresh herbs. Any herbs that you infuse in your oils must always be dried first.
One of the biggest issues that occurs with olive oil in cooking is how to use olive oil when it is heated. The key with cooking with olive oil or any oil is to ensure that you do not heat the oil past the smoking point. This is the temperature when the fat/oil starts to break down. If the oil starts to smoke, you are going to infuse the food with a bad flavor.
What the smoke point is of olive oil depends largely on the quality. The highest quality extra virgin oils have a very high smoking point. They are an ideal choice for cooking but they are expensive. Lower quality olive oils have a lower smoking point. Most extra virgin olive oils will start to smoke between 365 and 400 degrees F.
Generally speaking, a high smoke point is desirable when you are frying foods. The best results are going to come when the oil is really hot. This will cause the outside of the food to be crispy and the inside will be fully cooked.