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Culinary Uses of Olive Oil

We often talk about the benefits of olive oil in the diet, now it is time to discuss how we get people to consume olive oil. For their benefit - as a flavor enhancer and healthy food, and from our perspective of increasing sales.

Some of the resistance to using olive oil relates to its smoke point when it is used for frying. Smoke point and other physical characteristics of olive oil are topics for a future article.

Frying is only one of the uses of olive oil in cooking. For ease of discussion we will break the culinary uses of olive oil into the following categories:

  • Physical characteristics
  • Flavour characteristics
  • Olive oil as a food in its own right.
  • Olive oil as a food ingredient and flavour enhancer

Flavour characteristics

For this discussion, unless otherwise stated, we will be talking about extra virgin olive oil.

There are a few general culinary points to make. The first is that strong flavour is not always a culinary positive. Culinary dishes are all about taste and the bitterness and pepperiness of robust oils do not necessarily impart the tastes chefs want, so a range of delicate to robust olive oils should be offered.

Secondly, pleasing aromas in food have a positive effect on digestion by stimulating digestive juices.

Olive oil as a food in its own right

Some people drink olive oil as it is very nutritious and healthy, most people don’t. But many are happy to dip bread into olive oil and enjoy the taste of it this way.

To encourage consumers to enjoy the flavour of olive oil it is best to add the oil to something that they are familiar with.

Bread and raw vegetables, dipped in olive oil are excellent for tasting. Even fruit such as banana, with olive oil drizzled over can be really tasty. Strawberries too.

Of course it can be spread on bread or toast to replace butter. Classic Italian bruschetta’s are a good example. Try it in a vegemite (marmite) sandwich or on toast with marmalade – yum.

Olive oil served on the side with cheese is great too. I even know of one lover of olive oil that puts a spoon of robust oil in their coffee – try it.

Olive oil drizzled over raw thinly sliced meat, carpaccio, really enhances the dish. But now we are moving to the more complex uses as a food ingredient and flavour enhancer.

To impress dinner guests with the wonderful aromas of olive oil I often pour the oil over hot pasta and let them breath in the wonderful volatiles that are given off, the pasta tastes good too. Fresh olive oil in mashed potato has the same effect.

Chefs use olive oil on its own as a decoration when they ‘plate-up’ a dish. Here the colour of the oil is very important.

Then we all use olive oil as a salad dressing – on its own or with lemon, balsamic vinegar et al. Important here is to remember to dress the salad with all ingredients, toss then drizzle with olive oil. This way the ingredients coat the salad and the olive oil seals them in.

Olive oil as a food ingredient and flavour enhancer

A quick search across the internet and through the proliferation of cook books, and now with Master Chef and other programmes on TV provides an abundance of recipes using olive oil. So I am not going to provide a list of recipes, rather provide a context for your decisions on what oil to use with your dishes.

Many of our food choices revolve around the offerings of the Mediterranean countries – Italy, Spain, Greece, France, Morocco, Lebanon etc.

These regional cuisines have olive oil as one of the staple ingredients and when cooking a dish from a region, to truly reflect the taste one should use an olive oil from the region, or one of similar style and flavour. For example for a fish dish from Liguria in Italy, use a delicate oil, for a strong tasting tomato-based past from Tuscany use a more robust Tuscan style. A strong oil will be too imposing on the fish and a delicate oil will be lost in the tomato-based pasta sauce.

I use olive oil to replace butter in the good old Anglo-Saxon quick foods like scrambled eggs. David Tsirakas, from Perama restaurant in Sydney, makes delicious ice-cream where 30% of the butter fat is replaced with olive oil. At a food show in Sydney we gave David three different olive oils to try, the next day he returned with three flavours of ice-cream each using one of the oils. The punters loved them.

The versatility of olive oil as a fat which can replace other fats such as butter, as a flavoursome ingredient and as decoration means that there is no end to this discussion of the more traditional culinary uses of olive oil.

Opportunities and ideas are all around us and to be effective in promoting the uses of olive oil we must take advantage of them to expand our knowledge and then pass it on.