Extra-virgin olive oil is a magical elixir, right? You should pour it over your salad greens and drizzle it over roasted vegetables and dip your first-born child in it to ensure a long life and no heart disease. Right?
Almost right. There’s one thing extra-virgin olive oil is not good at, and one very important reason why you shouldn’t use it in all your cooking.
It comes down to this: smoke point. I used to just think of smoke point as the annoying temperature at which an oil started to get smoky and stink up the kitchen. I thought it might also have something to do with an oil not working as well and letting food stick to the pan. Totally scientific and based on factual data, clearly.
In actuality, smoke point is the temperature at which a specific oil begins to break down, not only smoking and releasing unwanted flavors, but also generating toxic fumes and free radicals*, those scary cell-damaging molecules that only antioxidants can tame.
Extra-virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 200-300°F, depending on how refined it is**. (The more refined an oil, the higher its smoke point.) That’s low, too low for searing a piece of meat on a cast-iron skillet or stir-frying vegetables over a high flame.
So save your extra-virgin olive oil for salads or low-heat cooking, and give grapeseed oil a try. This oil, extracted from — you guessed it — grape seeds, is high in healthy polyunsaturated fats, which lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. It also has a high smoke point, around 425-475°F and is virtually flavorless, so it lets the flavor of your ingredients shine through.
Look for expeller pressed grapeseed oil, which has been extracted without chemicals. (Because grape seeds are so low in oil, many manufacturers use the solvent hexane to extract the oil. You probably don’t want to be eating that.) Spectrum Organics, La Tourangelle, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s brand grapeseed oils are all expeller pressed. So get a bottle and go to town!
* Guide to Oils, Whole Foods Market
** Is it OK to cook with extra-virgin olive oil?, WHFoods