There are no hard, fast rules in the kitchen. When you are following any recipe, there are always ways to make it your own—add a dash of your favorite seasoning, double the amount of ingredients to make two batches, or even swap out oils and creams to make the dish healthier (or more indulgent).
After all, part of the fun of cooking is the endless discovery and trying new things to please both your tastebuds and health goals. Recipes simply provide you with a roadmap that can lead to a tasty destination, but you can always take a few sideroads to end up with something just as delicious.
Of course, there are always exceptions to this general rule—swapping ingredients can sometimes result in significantly different textures and tastes, and no more is this the case than with olive oil and vegetable oil. Though they might seem interchangeable, these two popular cooking oils have specific, distinct properties that make them each appropriate for certain applications—and not so great for others.
Smoke points create a big difference
Cooking oils of all types each have their own unique smoke point that is reflective of their chemical makeup and how it reacts to added heat. This is a term for the temperature at which an oil will start to smoke, producing toxic fumes and harmful free radicals—which you obviously want to avoid. So if you’re needing to cook something at a rather high temperature (say, 500 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s good to know that something like coconut oil will start to smoke at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and in this case it might be better to cook with avocado oil, which has a smoke point of 520 degrees.
In this same comparison, vegetable oil has one of the highest smoke points for things like frying foods while olive oil has a lower smoke point that makes it appropriate for low-temperature cooking and even eating straight, such as on salads or as a dip for bread.
More about vegetable oil
You might think that with a name like vegetable oil, it would be a pretty healthy choice for cooking and preparing foods. Unfortunately, while it may be appropriate for higher temp cooking, it’s also incredibly unhealthy. A manufactured “vegetable oil” is actually made from various grains, seeds, and beans, in which the oils are extracted from the solid material using hexane, a poisonous solvent. In so doing, it strips the nutrients native to the food and turns a large portion of their healthy polyunsaturated fats into inflammatory and damaging trans fats.
A recent study also found that cooking with vegetable oils releases high concentrations of chemicals called aldehydes. These have been linked to illnesses including cancer, heart disease, and dementia. Because of this, scientists often recommend olive oil, butter, and even lard before ever grabbing vegetable oil.
As if the toxic chemicals weren’t enough reason to avoid it, vegetable oil isn’t a very versatile oil, either. It’s mostly used to deep fry foods, and it won’t taste particularly good just on its own, such as drizzled over some fresh arugula or paired with a fresh loaf of foccacia bread like you might enjoy with a good olive oil.
More about olive oil
With all that news you might be scared to even try cooking with an oil at all, but know that olive oil is still an incredibly healthy (and completely delicious) option that can be quite handy in the kitchen for a variety of purposes, from making salad dressings to even baking.
It’s made by cold-pressing fresh olives to extract the liquid. Less processed varieties are referred to as extra virgin olive oil while those that are more refined and filtered don’t carry the “extra virgin” label. The thing to know about olive oil is that it is an industry with a lot of fraud (in fact, experts estimate that nearly 80 percent of bottles bearing the extra virgin title are actually cut with things like soybean oil or carry dyes and artificial flavorings). This is why it’s incredibly important to ensure your bottle is single sourced (farmed, harvested and bottled in the same spot), and in a metal tin or dark glass container that protect it from light. While this may make the product more expensive, it’s worth it when it comes to your health.
Health benefits of olive oil
When you use olive oil, you’ll be reaping a ton of health benefits that regular vegetable oil doesn’t provide, including:
- Lowered risk for heart disease. Olive oil can simultaneously lower the concentration of LDL cholesterol and encourage HDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is often referred to as the “bad” type that people work arduously to lower, and HDL is actually the “good” cholesterol that protects the body and prevents fat storage. A more balanced ratio will lead to improved heart health by preventing blocked arteries that can lead to heart attack or stroke.
- Antioxidant power. Every day we are subject to some form of cellular stress that can break down membranes and make us more susceptible to disease in the long-run. A significant cause of this stress is the metabolization of oxygen, which can cause free radicals that do harm, even altering DNA. Antioxidants, however, are a powerful tool to battle free radicals, preventing you from getting sick or having major health complications as you age. Olive oil contains a good amount of vitamin E, one of the richest sources of antioxidants.
- Diabetes prevention. Research has shown that a diet rich in olive oil and low in saturated fats (a.k.a. the Mediterranean diet) may help prevent the onset of diabetes. Specifically, a diet that incorporates this nourishing oil will reduce low-density lipoproteins, lower blood sugar, and increase insulin sensitivity, all of which has an effect on the development of the disease.
- Improved bone health. A recent study has shown that olive oil provides the body with higher levels of osteocalcin, a protein that is secreted by bone-forming cells. High levels indicate strong bones, which is important for staving off osteoporosis later in life.
- Lowered risk of stroke. Recent research has found that a diet rich in olive oil can also lower the risk of having a stroke by more than 40 percent. This is also a benefit that comes from olive oil’s cholesterol-reducing effects.
- Ease of depression symptoms. Scientists have found that those who have diets that contain a large proportion of trans fats are more likely to be affected by depression. However, by replacing trans fats with the healthy saturated fats found in olive oil, the effects of depression can greatly decrease.
But that’s not all olive oil is good for. It’s actually a centuries-old beauty tool (Cleopatra even swore by it). The amount of healthy fats and concentration of moisturizing vitamins A and E make it a great body lotion, especially for the dry parts like elbows, cracked feet, and under the eyes. As well, it makes a great natural eye makeup remover, deep conditioner and shine serum for hair, shaving tool, and even nail strengthener.
What olive oil is good for in the kitchen
Olive oil can be used in a variety of cooking applications. Here are just a few ideas:
- Healthy salad dressing. If you enjoy the mild and distinct flavor of olive oil, it can be a healthy alternative to calorie-packed Caesar and thousand island dressings.
- Cooking oil. This is the most obvious way to use olive oil. Use it to cook fish and saute vegetables.
- Pasta enhancer. If you aren’t keen on marinara sauce, try a splash of olive oil, some parmesan cheese, and a little garlic for a lighter option.
- Dip for bread. In a shallow bowl, place a few tablespoons of olive oil, a little salt and pepper, and some parmesan cheese for a delightful appetizer to any bread, even the healthy kind.
- To make marinades and sauces. Adding olive oil will give marinades and sauces a creamy texture and decadent taste while also imparting a number of health benefits.
- Butter replacement. Substituting olive oil for some or all of the butter in a recipe will make it a more heart-healthy choice.
However, olive oil is not the best for high temperature cooking, based on its lower smoke point. So if you want to make stir-fry, opt for a healthy option like coconut oil that can heat up a greater degree.
Recipes using olive oil
Itching to start using olive oil in the kitchen in more creative ways? Here are a few delectable ideas that can harness the power of this oil and please the entire family.
Ditch the alfredo or bolognese sauce and go for something hearty and veggie-centric the next time you are craving pasta. This recipe is richer and heartier than traditional basil pesto, and its mild flavor will work beautifully on everything from noodles to roasted vegetables. The hemp seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and the kale is full of antioxidants, too, so it’s ultra healthy. Bonus: You can make this pesto sauce vegan by swapping out parmesan for nutritional yeast.
Mashed potatoes have a reputation for being the gluttonous side at Sunday dinners and holiday meals, but there’s no need for dairy to weigh it down. Instead, these mashed potatoes are made with olive oil so they remain creamy with just the right texture, without the heavy cream. There’s also lots of flavor from the added garlic. Pair with some steamed carrots and a chicken roast for a fully satisfying meal.
Tagine is a fancy name for slow-simmered Moroccan stew. In this case, tangy lemon chicken is spiced with turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, and onion and garlic powder. Some olives, olive oil, and lemons complete the full-bodied flavor. To complete the meal, finish with a side of couscous, cauliflower rice, or quinoa.
For a dish where olive oil is the star ingredient, try this Mediterranean-inspired recipe. It only takes a few minutes to cook and makes an incredibly memorable lunch. Olive oil is used to fry the flatbread and also doused on the zucchini salad (with watermelon radish and crumbled feta). Experiment with any toppings you desire to customize the dish even further.