book pic 1
This image is from Lyndey and Blair’s Taste of Greece, available for purchase by clicking here.
Photographer: Chris Chen

We’ve come a long way in Australia from thinking that Olive Oil was the name of Popeye’s girlfriend – or from my reading it in a recipe in the late sixties and buying it in a specimen bottle from the chemist!  Olive oil is the fifth fastest growing supermarket category. But goodbye culinary cringe, increasingly Australia is making world class oils in a country vast enough to have ideal growing conditions for the different varietals of olive tree.

Misconceptions about cooking with olive oil
Extra virgin olive oils have a high smoke point and stand up well to high cooking temperatures and contrary to popular belief, its composition and nutritional value are not altered through heating. Although extra virgin olive oil is suitable for cooking and even deep-frying, due to its cost, many people prefer to save it for salad dressings and for finishing off dishes like vegetables, soups and pasta, where the oil is added after cooking. Try it for making mashed potatoes!

Olive oil is an all purpose oil used in salad dressings, mayonnaise, pan frying, stir-frying and deep-frying. Extra virgin olive oil can be safely re-used up to ten times after deep-frying as long as you filter it after each use and store correctly.

The Greeks have been doing it forever
Perhaps no other symbol represents Greece as does the olive tree. Said to be given by the goddess of wisdom, Athena, to the city bearing her name, the olive tree provides two staples of Greek cuisine – olives and olive oil. Nowhere is olive oil loved and revered more than in Greece. It has been the most significant ingredient in the Greek diets since ancient times and is still an integral part of the Greek kitchen and rightfully celebrated on Greek tables. For Greeks cannot eat without olive oil. Rich, flavoursome extra virgin olive oil is on the table at all meals, which begin and end with olive oil;  bread is dipped in it, salads and vegetables are doused with it, it is poured over soups, stews and many other dishes.

Olive oil is also used liberally in cooking, sometimes a surprising amount is called for in recipes. ‘Close your eyes and add olive oil’ is the wisdom imparted by many older Greek cooks (what this means is that a good amount of olive oil should be added). The Greek’s even have a word for dishes prepared with lots of olive oil, Ladthera (from the word Ladi the Greek word for olive oil).

Use the amount listed in the recipes or your meal won’t have that authentic Greek flavour. Extra virgin olive oil completely changes not only the taste but also the texture and richness of many favourite dishes.

The interesting thing is in Greece, the olive oil is virtually all extra virgin olive oil. New season’s oil is used at the table, for salads and to pour over finished dishes while last season’s is used for cooking and deep-frying.

Greek’s consume more olive oil per capita than any other nation in the world, an average of 26 litres per person, per year! Despite its relatively small size Greece is the third largest producer of olive oil (behind Spain and Italy), with around 140 million olive trees, which produce approximately 450,000 tons of olive a year,  80% of which is extra virgin olive oil, making Greece the world leader in this oil.

Different styles of oil are suited for different styles of cooking – light, classic, robust
Beware of “extra light olive oil”! It may be best for making cakes, biscuits, pastry desserts, greasing tins or whenever you want very little olive flavor but it is also highly refined yet with the same fat content. Fortunately, some producers are now blending mild flavoured extra virgin oils expressly for this purpose.

Do match the flavor of the oil with the flavor of the dish. Call me crazy but I love a robust EVOO with a curry!

Deep-frying with olive oil
Deep frying is one of the oldest and most popular cooking methods, especially in the countries of the Mediterranean basin, where olives and olive oil abound. Though deep frying tended to be looked down upon in many other areas of the world, acceptance of the Mediterranean diet as an excellent model for good health is changing this. Best of all, it tastes wonderful. No wonder deep frying was the Mediterranean way of making cheap food tasty!

Deep frying with olive oil makes sense from a taste, health and budget perspective. Antioxidants which prevent oxidation of the fatty acids mean that, if filtered after each use, olive oil can be safely used at least ten times for deep-frying.

It can also be heated to a much higher temperature in cooking than other oils. As it forms a seal around food, less fat is absorbed into the food. It is important to cook at the right temperature, approximately 180’C for a crisp, dry finish. Indeed in Mediterranean countries it is considered that when frying is carried out correctly and the food drained, the paper in which it is wrapped should remain completely dry with no grease marks.

Do not add too much food at one time to the hot oil as this lowers the temperature, making the food absorb oil. Much better to cook in several smaller batches.