is it worthwhile cooking with expensive olive oil? [5 ingredients]

bunch of cavalo nero egg noodles with caramelised onion & cavalo nero

A little while ago I was reading Aussie chef Neil Perry’s beautiful book, Food I Love. Among the many tips and insights into Neils cooking mind, he mentioned that he always uses the best quality olive oil for cooking.

Now I’ve long been a believer that the heat of cooking changes the aroma and flavour of the oil so that the subtle complexity of expensive oil is lost. And have always used cheaper oil for anything involving heat and saved my best oil for drizzling at the end. According to Mr Perry, I was doing it all wrong. And I was sacrificing the lovely flavour that would still come through in the dish.

I was skeptical, maybe one of Australia’s best chefs knew a few things that I didn’t. So I decided to experiment and cook up 2 batches of caramelised onions with a cheap and an expensive oil. First, I did a little taste test of the oils straight from the bottle:

_________________EXPENSIVE OIL_____________CHEAP OIL
price:_____________$55/L____________________$8.30/L
description:_______extra virgin_______________extra virgin
origin:_____________italy______________________italy
appearance:_______pale yellow________________yellow
flavour:___________fresh, grassy, bright_______fruity, olivey, ripe
mouthfeel:________light, crisp & fresh_________heavy, oily, flat

saucepan of caramelised onions

Overall, the oils were about as different as olive oils could be.

But when it came time to taste the caramelised onion cooked with the 2 different oils, it was a completely new situation. If I tried really hard I could just detect a slight difference in sweetness but overall, they tasted identical – all the subtleties of the expensive oil were gone, no grassiness in sight. And the cheaper oil had completely lost it’s pungent fruitiness. It all just tasted like sweet sweet onions.

So there you have it. If you’re cooking with oil, there’s no benefit from using the expensive oil. Heat DOES make a big difference. It’s totally not worth paying extra if you’re going to be subjecting the oil to heat. You’ve got to love a bit of kitchen experimentation.

egg noodles with caramelised onion & cavalo nero

[5 ingredients]
egg noodles with cavalo nero & caramelised onion

serves 2

This is the perfect thing when you feel like some pasta comfort but want to keep it healthy and get some greens.

Any pasta or noodle would be fine with this, but I do love the bright colour you get from pasta made with eggs. Homemade would be lovely but I was pretty happy with the dried egg pasta I used for the photo.

For a vegan version use pasta made from just flour and instead of the cheese toss through a small handful of toasted pinenuts or almonds.

Cavalo nero, also known as Tuscan black cabbage is one of my favourite greens with it rich earthiness but you could use any green you like. Kale would be wonderful as would silverbeet, spinach, or even baby spinach.

2 large brown onions, peeled & halved lengthwise
1 bunch cavalo nero or other greens, roughly chopped
150g (5oz) egg noodles
lemon juice
handful grated parmesan, to serve

Finely slice onions into little half moons. Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a medium saucepan and cook onion, covered, over a medium-low heat. Stir every 5 minutes or so to stop it burning too much. The idea is to get soft, melting caramelised onions. It’s going to take about 30 minutes or even up to 45minutes. Patience is needed.

Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan salted water to the boil.

When the onions are caramelised, add greens and continue to cook covered, but stirring every few minutes, until the greens are just wilted. Keep warm.

Cook pasta until al dente or how you like it. Drain.

Add pasta to the greens and onions and toss. Taste and season, adding a little squeeze of lemon juice, to taste. Serve with parmesan.

egg noodles with caramelised onion & cavalo nero

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{ 44 comments }

dan August 12, 2010 at 7:11 pm

wow, so that’s a really compelling test, you cooked two batches of onion and you dismiss the lifetime experience of a professional chef. I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. Not that I needed to, I use olive oil myself anyway, for almost everything other than deep frying and your little “test” doesn’t convince me… olive oil is just better, even if you can’t taste it, it has nutrients that are missing from ordinary oil. Even if the taste changes, the nutrients remain. So, there are benefits. If you can, use olive oil.

martina August 12, 2010 at 7:23 pm

Disclaimer: I’m Italian. Is out there someone who spend 55 AUD in olive oil? Are you mad? :) I use good olive oil everyday, in everything, cooked or not, but the idea to spend soo much freaks me out. I guess maybe down under imported olive oil is more expensive, but for me it’s total nonsense. I think your “cheap” olive oil is just fine. What important, as far as I know, is the fact the oil is extra-virgin (the first oil out from olives), done without any heat involved to preserve all the goodness from the olives. The differences in flavour and arome can come from different varieties or different places of growth, not only from the price!
Hope this help
I love your blog
Martina

Kavey August 12, 2010 at 7:44 pm

There are many examples of professional chefs doing things a certain way because they’ve always done so, and that in turn comes from the fact that the chefs they learned from always did it that way…
Anyone who assumes that every single thing a professional chef does is unquestionable just because the chef is a professional is, quite frankly, a little star struck and not able to think for themselves.
I’d also add that, if I’m interpreting your post correctly, both the oils were extra virgin olive oils, but at very different price points/ quality. But still both EVOO.
I think this is not only a great post but a very valid experiment too.

Cristina August 12, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Mmm…I’m sorry but I partially disagree. When I cook Mediterranean recipes, I use two different types of extra-virgin olive oil, one for cooking and one for drizzling over. The cheap oil is still a good quality olive oil, though – still cold-pressed. When I cook something where oil plays a substantial role – like aglio, olio & peperoncino pasta (garlic, oil, chilli pepper) for example, or a Bolognese sauce (the way my grandmother used to make it) the type of oil you use will certainly make a difference, not only in taste but also in the way the food is digested (I find cheap olive oil heavier).
By the way, when I caramelise onions I like adding a knob of butter to the oil, it gives them a richer, sweeter taste.
If you like cavolo nero, try the zuppa di cavolo nero toscana – few ingredients, and delicious -I’m from Tuscany, my grandmother used to make that, too. Yum!

Orchid64 August 12, 2010 at 7:49 pm

One of my students takes Italian cooking lessons and was told that really good olive oil is used for serving and eating – dipping bread, stirring into pasta, drizzling over vegetables. She was told that the subtle fruity notes of high quality olive oil are completely lost in cooking by someone who specializes in Italian cuisine. This makes a good deal of sense to me.

What my student was taught mirrors your cooking experience. For eating, use the good stuff. For cooking, it doesn’t matter so much.

Alex August 12, 2010 at 8:24 pm

That sounds sensible! Heat often removes so many of the ‘lighter’ aromatic compounds and changes things a bit, so in something like olive oil which is made up of so many substances, don’t wreck the nice oil with heat! Some of the oils have alot of ‘vegetable’ content in them anyway which changes flavour entirely when you cook (think difference between uncooked and cooked lettuce…)

I have several oils at home – nice ones for ice cream, salad and bread and the cheapest extra virgin cold pressed oil for cooking.

As with anything – depends on what you cook and your style.

Sandra August 12, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I am portuguese and i must subscribe cristina and martina answers. A good olive oil is more dense, but its better to temperate, not for cooking.

by the way, i just love your blog.

Wei-Wei August 12, 2010 at 9:28 pm

I never knew that there was such thing as “cheap” olive oil. I always thought of olive oil as a hoity-toity high-up absolutely-gourmet thing that everyone must have but barely afford. Turns out… there is cheap olive oil?!

Wei-Wei

sarah k. August 12, 2010 at 10:41 pm

I appreciate your going to the trouble to test this theory, and as a cheap-for-cooking, expensive-for-dipping kind of person, I’m glad someone did it. However… and really, I don’t mean to be nit-picky, just trying to add to the discussion, the caramelized onion route is a long cooking process in which the heat and the flavor of the onions would be enough to degrade the taste of ANY oil.

I may try something similar, but with a shorter, less intense cooking process. But even if it makes a difference, I don’t think I’d be able to switching to expensive oil for cooking (Holy crap, I’ve never spent that much on oil! I hope it’s fantastic!). I have a family of 5, and really want to keep them healthy, so I’ll have to settle for using the cheap stuff most of the time.

Majeeda August 12, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Gosh. When I buy my good olive oil it costs the same as your cheap olive oil (give or take just a little). So as Martina said – is there really anyone out there spending that kind of money on olive oil? $55 a litre? It seems almost like a crime.

It was a good experiment though, now I’m over the shock. I do use my ”good” oil for almost everything now, but like I said, my good oil is your cheap oil, lol. I bought a huge tin of olive oil while it was half price which pretty much brings the price in line with vege oils like canola. I like just having the one oil in the cupboard…well ok, there is also sesame.

@ Dan – you are right about the health benefits of olive oil of course, but I wonder whether those benefits continue or are destroyed by heat. When you said: “Even if the taste changes, the nutrients remain.” were you talking because you know, or just supposing? I ask only because it’s fairly well accepted that some foods do lose some of their nutrient value as they heat so I am wondering if it is the same with olive oil? Thanks.

Alexa August 12, 2010 at 11:49 pm

@Dan I think you misread the post. The idea was not to compare non-olive oil to olive oil, but to compare expensive olive oil to cheap olive oil, and the conclusion is that there’s no compelling reason to use super expensive olive oil if you’re going to cook it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t cook with olive oil.

Alyssa August 13, 2010 at 1:40 am

Call me a novice for asking, but what about comparing equally priced virgin versus extra virgin for cooking (roasting, sauteing) versus drizzling? Everyone talks about EVOO being “better” for you, but I am still trying to sort this out. Thoughts anyone?

Mariana August 13, 2010 at 1:59 am

I know Im sidetracking, but watching Landline a couple of months ago, I was intrigued to see that Australian olive oils have come a really long way in quality. I have swapped now using Cobram estate ($20 for 3litres). It is fantastic and I feel glad to be supporting our olive oil industry. I find it hard to justify fifty five dollars a litre when there are some really good brands out there. I even saw Moro Extra Virgin four litres for $20 in woolies a couple of weeks ago. Now that’s affordable.

Red Icculus August 13, 2010 at 5:56 am

This is a great comparison. We only use expensive oil when it is meant to be a prominent flavor. Any other time, we use cheap evoo or corn oil depending on the use.

My Restaurants Melbourne August 13, 2010 at 7:26 am

I’ve always believed in good olive oil, but never spent $55 on one. This is a great debate, it made me think, because I’ve never had a reason why I use good olive oil, I think I might go for a bargain one next time.

Trevar August 13, 2010 at 7:59 am

You’re awesome! I’ve always wanted to do this, but I never got around to it. Like you, I’ve always kept two olive oils, but I’ve never tried them against each other on the same recipe.
Just wondering why you used an Italian oil as your expensive one instead of a local oil? To my way of thinking, the freshness of the oil would make a difference, so I think it would be good to try a local oil as your high-quality comparison instead of an import.
I don’t see any reason not to spend $55 a litre on a good oil; if it’s only for drizzling you’d rarely use a substantial quantity, so you’re not actually spending $55. My good oil (from the Canberra region) costs $30/L, but I buy it in 250mL lots about once a month.

Rachelle Chinnery August 13, 2010 at 8:01 am

It may be easier on the budget to cook with cheaper oil, but that cheap oil may not even BE olive oil. So many of the big “cheap” oil producers in Italy are cutting their olive oil with canola oil. They are also adding chlorophyll and other additives to correct the flavors. So cheap may be good on the pocket book – but if olive oil is what you’re after, consider the source!

Ruth August 13, 2010 at 8:48 am

One thing is notice with different oils is using one that complements what you’re cooking, and I really don’t buy the most expensive (just can’t afford it)! Corn oil for things that need high heat frying–you can’t really taste it, one of the Olive oils for Italian or Mediterrenean cooking, sesame or peanut for Asian.

jules August 13, 2010 at 8:56 am

mariana
I love landline – reminds me of my dad. I do buy Australian oil sometimes – will check out the cobram estate – thanks

alyssa
good question but I’d find it difficult to find a plain olive oil that is in a similar price range to EVOO.

thanks alexa – I think dan may have misread. I love olive oil.

majeeda
Lucky you. The problem of living in Australia is the price of imported products. I envy everyone with access to good quality, reasonable priced oil. In terms of heat and nutrients, I think it’s only the heat sensitive vitamins that are destroyed, the overall macronutrients stay the same – good question for my nutritionist mate.

sarah k.
good point that it would be good to see how oils compare with less intense cooking – do report back if you try it out yourself.

wei-wei
I love your comments. Yep. there’s cheap olive oil but it’s all relative. And not sure what the situation would be like where you live?

alex,
I hadn’t thought of comparing the changes in flavour to that of cooking vegetables – excellent point

thanks for confirming orchid

kavey
completely agree – just because someone is a professional chef doesn’t mean they are infallable – I mean they are still human (although there are some that are a bit questionable on that point)

martina
glad you think $55 is crazy. It is and for the record, I don’t buy olive oil like that very often. and good point about getting different flavour from different locations and varieties.

dan
thanks for sharing your opinion. we actually agree on the benefits of olive oil. and you’re right, further experimentation would be useful to confirm my findings but the point was to just share the findings as they were. But you might want to rethink blindly following the advice of someone just because they are a ‘professional’.

Paul August 13, 2010 at 9:47 am

I just discovered Aldi has Australian extra virgin olive oil which is $20 bucks for a 3 litre tin and I reckon its a great buy – I prefer it to the imported stuff.

http://www.aldi.com.au/au/html/product_range/2744_10685.htm

jules August 13, 2010 at 9:49 am

cool paul thanks.
will check out the aldi oil

Lisette August 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

My only question is, does the taste of the onion overcome the flavor of the oil? What if you were to make a dish with eggplant or something else that had less flavor than onion? What about using the expensive oil in baba ganoush, or spanakopita? I think the difference might be tasted more then. But, alas, as a poor graduate student I will indeed stick to the cheep stuff!

Heidi August 13, 2010 at 11:01 am

Your experiment confirms what I’ve heard. I use very good EVOO for dipping and drizzling, and use cheaper stuff for cooking. I’ve recently tried the new Pompeian canola and EVOO mix for cooking, OlivExtra Plus, and I think it’s even better as it’s a lighter oil but still has the omega-3 DHA and other nutritional pluses of EVOO.

Another Claire August 13, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I had to laugh at Majeeda’s comment that the “cheap” oil was premium – I agree! (It’s only recently I’ve been willing to indulge in the cold pressed EVOO which is about $8 for 750mL, rather than buying stuff that’s even cheaper!)

I wonder also what difference there is between “fresh” olive oil and oil that’s been opened for a while. My own experience suggests that olive oil goes “stale” and loses its delicious fruitiness more quickly than I would expect after being opened…so perhaps my luxury is to be willing to buy smaller quantities of oil when I need it, rather than buying larger quantities and stocking up when it’s on special (as is my general tendency).

Lindsay at Kitchen Operas August 13, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Thanks for doing the experiment — you have proven this idea to me now, which is GREAT! I had always wondered if it really made a difference or not…

And YUM to the recipe!

Meg August 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm

You’re absolutely right–it’s pointless to use an expensive olive oil for cooking. Have you checked out the organic EVOO at Costco? Here in the States it’s pretty good for the price.

Majeeda August 13, 2010 at 1:30 pm

@ Jules I don’t know if I made myself clear – what I mean is that my standards perhaps are a bit lower (lol) – what I consider ”good” is what you used for your ”cheap” oil in your experiment :D Also – I’m in Australia too!!

@ Paul – that special sounds amazing. I do like the idea of buying Australian.

@ Another Claire – I bought a very, very big tin of it (that’s a precise measurement I’m giving you there) and I was a bit concerned about it going off/stale…but I have since decided to start making castile soap again so I guess I won’t be finding out and in that sense the problem is solved. :)

twirling betty August 13, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Olive oil debates aside, thanks for the lovely recipe. I’ve been looking for just the right recipe for the one, precious bunch of cavolo nero growing in my tiny garden. Now to dust off the pasta maker…

Jess Green August 13, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Hey Jules – hope all is good. I once knew someone that said that they would “eat shit if it was cooked properly” – so I’m doubting that the majority of people would actually know the difference between $55 and $8 olive oil. In fact I doubt most people would know the difference between Canola Oil and Olive oil. So I say – buy and cook with whatever you choose to – as long as you enjoy the food!!!!! Cheers Jess. Catch up soon.

Y August 13, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Lovely photos! I usually save the ‘good’ olive oil for finishing dishes with. My mom used to cook with evo all the time, but only because she thought it was a healthier oil to use than second/third pressings.

Marie (a.k.a. gardenfreshtomatoes) August 13, 2010 at 9:20 pm

I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in the US we’ve recently learned to be very careful about any really cheap olive oils – a reading of the label shows them to actually be blends of olive and vegetable oils. I hope the rest of you don’t have this problem, too.

Another great, easy recipe – thanks, Jules! Is silverbeet by any chance what I might know as Swiss Chard here in the states?

Polly Forelle August 14, 2010 at 7:57 am

The best healthiest high polyphenol oil Downunder comes from Tasmania and Southern New Zealand East Coast. A high polyphenol oil is not only better for your health but has a higher smoke point. Your caramelised onions will taste different if you use a high polyphenol ultra healthy oil with a higher smoke point. Use canola or any other oil if you want to fry but research will show you a higher heating refined oil in a plastic bottle does have health consequences.An evoo can be reused safely for deep frying a lot more times so it makes it economical.
We grow olives way down south NZ$24.00 a liter for a robust high polyphenol throat tickling extra virgin from Tuscan varieties with sustainable water and no agri chemicals.Rated by the Italians/Tuscans as good as their best with the organoleptic/chemi tests to prove it.Also nz$10.00 a liter for the too robust cooking oils from a mix of varieties and ages. Still far better evoo than the milder/delicate oils from a health point of view. Check the polyphenol level with your grower supplier if it is not on the label. Some chefs buy our cheaper oil to cook with and end up serving it as a condiment oil.You’ve got to know your onions too of course. My homegrown red onions caramelised in our evoo cooking oil with a sprinkle of Marlborough sea salt from the salt lake down the road [gratis] will knock your socks off I reckon. A girl should always know her onions in this game.

deana August 14, 2010 at 8:47 am

Good for you to do the test. I wonder if all the volatiles in the onions made a difference> would it be the same on a mild dish… like chicken breast??

Elizabeth August 14, 2010 at 10:30 am

Great conversation going on here…and I have to agree with the original article. Olive oil is so expensive to me that I will use sunflower oil for most of my super high heat cooking because I don’t find it worth it. All my dressings, salads, dips, etc. are made with high quality extra virgin olive oil.

RainbowEU August 16, 2010 at 7:16 am

Well, as many of my Olive growing European neighbours have already stated olive oil is a big business. The taste and texture of olive oil totally depends on where the olive grove is. This is the main reason that the best olive oil comes from the Meditarenean.

Personally, I come form the North-East of Greece where I can get my hands on a very rich tasting oil from Makri (where Ulysses is said to have met the Cyclop Polyphimos) and the island of Samothraki. However both places have a rather strong flavor for my personal taste. The best way to see the difference in oil is the flavour you get with oil on fresh bread.

As for cooking, it is said that the Greeks have been having a raise in heart diseases ever since they started using oil other than olive oil. It is of course more expensive than say oil from sunflowers but it makes all the diffierence in the taste of the food or salad. There is a rather big price range (here in Greece you can get a 5 litre can from 15 to 30 Euros.) The thing is that if you learn to recognise the clean taste of the oil then you’ll see that there is usually no difference. Must always of course be cautious of mixed oils (which will definetaly show in the bread test!)

Heidi Cooks Supper August 17, 2010 at 2:20 am

EV olive oil is my go to oil for most things but I use two different ones that are similar in price but very different in aromatics. I use the less aromatic one for sauteing but the more aromatic one for adding to bread dough, drizzling on pasta, bruschetta, etc. I don’t bother buying any more than a bottle of each at a time because I am a home cook without a cool cellar to store things in and large quantities become skunky over time. Each of us needs to decide based on our own needs and our own taste buds. There should be no hard and fast rules in cooking. Yes, you can have cheese and seafood; think shrimp quesadillas. Coq au vin is red wine with poultry.

dan August 17, 2010 at 8:17 pm

I didn’t advocate blindly following someone’s advice just because they’re a proffesional chef, I advocate not dismissing a professional’s lifetime experience based on a 15 minutes experiment that is not even very relevant.

I may have misread indeed your comparison, as one between olive oil and other oils. I am also lucky to have access to excellent quality cheap olive oil (I am paying around 5EUR/liter for excellent greek EVOO) so I can easily afford to use only this oil for almost everything. But I totally agree on NOT using the expensive, 50 dollars a bottle type for cooking. It would be like using 25 years old balsamico on a salad dressing.

To answer the question about nutrients, I do not “know” from any scientific experimentation, but it is logical that when you start with more, you will be left with more even after the heat takes its toll. Not only that, but olive oil does not contain polyunsaturated fats that are not very good for you and are present in almost all other vegetable oils.

jules August 17, 2010 at 9:50 pm

hey dan
thanks for clearing that up – no hard feelings ;) I wish I had access to the type oil you have for that price.
and I see where you’re coming from on the nutrition front but olive oil does contain polyunsaturated fats – I think it just has less than most other vegetable oils.

heidi
thanks for sharing your experience – particularly like your attitude to rules ;)

deana &lisette
good question whether the onion aromatics made a difference – great idea to repeat with a milder dish… it’s on my things to try list

marie
thanks for the heads up on the blending thing.
and you’re right – silverbeet and swiss chard are one and the same

hey jess
lovely to hear from you – good to see you’re still making me laugh

michael August 18, 2010 at 4:02 pm

i live in nyc in the winter, tuscany most of the year. i have my olive oil sent to ny because it’s nearly impossible to get quality oil–which means of the most recent harvest. oils at dean and deluca selling for $55 i notice are sometimes 2 years old. no italian cook would use even a year old oil. janet and stefano at saggitario ship oil in 3 liter tins, for example. i did find a good chilean oil when a rep was having a tasting in gourmet garage. name begins with o, i think–olena? it’s cheap and sold in several markets. many oils in the states don’t even date their oil.

felipe August 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

nice pasta recipe. i will try it with spinach. don’t think we can easily find that cavalo nero green here in brazil. cheers!

erinc February 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Thanks for the nice post, I second everything that you said, I agree that there’s different aromas in the expensive olive oil, so it is better to use it for dipping and salads etc, whereas cheaper or average quality olive oil would also be great for cooking. I am coming from a family that owns acres of olive trees in western turkey, my grandparents and uncles used to pick olives and make their own olive oil, so I know the difference between good oil and average, I am sorry but nobody can convince me(no matter how good it is) how 500 ml of olive oil can cost $39(I saw it at Philly Italian Market this weekend). What I noticed is some of the goods in gourmet Italian Markets extremely overpriced(same market was selling calimyrna dried figs for $8, which is not Italian, and can be bought for $3-4 in regular grocery store), I’d think twice before jumping on to Fancy Italian Olive Oil Bandwagon.

erinc February 24, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Trader Joe’s Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil(From Crete) works great for expensive olive oil(around $9/liter), It is great for salads and dipping, Trader Joes Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil works great for cooking(around $5.5/liter), and you can save $70 bucks to yourself every month.

Robin July 28, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Just to say Italians do use oil that is over a year old. Our new oil is fiery & peppery, full of fruit and antioxidants, our year old oil has mellowed and has a fuller fruit taste – so we just match it to the food. We also use the new oil as a moisturiser and we even use older oil to lubricate, gate hinges, locks etc on the farm! Ciao, ciao

Rebecca Newland March 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

This is a great blog. Let me start by saying evoo is a healthy oil and can help with cholesterol control. I did without evoo because of a budget crunch. I realized how beautiful the oil is to cook with! I finally splurged and bought a 2 quart bottle of store brand and made a dipping oil for lunch. It was so horrible that I am going to return it to the store for a smaller bottle of name brand. I never thought I would taste an olive oil that was bad, but what a difference.

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