Lets be honest, in the US, fat is a bad 3 letter word. Every day grocery stores add new and improved low fat, reduced fat and fat free products designed to improve our overall health and reduce our waistlines. Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that there are more over weight people in this country today, with the advent of all these lower fat options then 100 years ago when people cooked with butter, lard and ate bacon like it was going out of style. Fat isn’t a bad word, nor is it bad for you. The key is which fats you are using and how much.
I recently read an article in a cooking magazine discussing the nutritional differences between olive oil, butter, margarine, shortening and lard. Bottom line between them wasn’t calories, but rather cholesterol and saturated versus unsaturated fats. Those fats containing higher levels of unsaturated to saturated fats, like olive oil, which happens to be higher in calories per serving than butter for example, were considered to be far healthier than those with higher proportions of saturated fats. The second key here is quantity. Looking at serving size is important. People tend to forget the serving sizes when they see something has fewer calories in it for example and just indulge in a lot more of it, assuming that if it is healthier they can eat more of it.
So, how does this relate to the Mediterranean diet. Well, most of the countries surrounding the mediterranean use both butter and olive oil, but overall, olive oil is the predominant fat of choice. But how do you pick a good quality olive oil?? What is the difference between extra virgin, virgin and light?? Does higher price really equal better quality?? These are all questions I get on a regular basis when teaching cooking classes and that I will demystify right here.
First of all, a distinction should be made between virgin and refined oils. Virgin oils are made without the use of chemical treatment and therefore considered to be superior. The second level of classification is based on level of acidity in the oil. Extra-Virgin oils should have the lowest acidity, 0.8% or lower. Next is Virgin, which generally has no more than 2% acidity. Light olive oils are usually refined oils that are less flavorful and pure olive oils are often a combination of both refined and virgin oils. Olive oil in general is filtered after it is pressed to remove any impurities and reduce the cloudiness of the oil.
Because olive oil has a low burn point, it has a tendency to not work particularly well for frying, although it is suggested that refined oils are perhaps a better choice for frying than virgin oils. It is also suggested that light oils are good for salad dressings because of their more neutral flavor. In my humble opinion, I opt to always use extra-virgin olive oil for dressings, sauteeing and every other purpose. I generally opt for an olive oil that is subtle in flavor and tend to look for oils that come from Italy. Having sampled oils from all over the world, many of the oils I have tasted, those from Greece, Morocco and the Middle East were often less filtered and therefore had a much stronger olive flavor. For cooking this is not a problem, but for dressings it can be over powering. To simplify things in my kitchen, which is pretty small, I keep one kind of extra-virgin olive oil on hand and try to keep it in a solid container rather than a clear one. You should use oil within a year of purchase as oils will go rancid just as nuts and spices do.
Something I tend to do frequently to help cut back on fat and still keep some of the flavor is to take a recipe calling for butter, margarine, shortening or another kind of oil that is higher in saturated fat is to use half and half. By substituting even part of the fat for olive oil you are reducing your trans and saturated fat intake, not to mention the fact that olive oil does have a distinct and delicious flavor that can add a remarkable depth to a dish. Just because a recipe isn’t necessarily mediterranean in origin, give olive oil a try. And don’t be afraid to sample olive oils.
One of the best experiences I ever had with olive oil early on in my cooking career was an olive oil tasting. We took small samples of numerous types of olive oils, flavored, unflavored, virgin, refined, extra-virgin, you name it. Not unlike a wine tasting, the oils all had distinct flavors that were dependent upon where the oils came from and where the olives were grown. Like grapes, the olives embodied many of the flavors of the terroir or soils/region they grew in and gave the oils a unique flavor profile. You can truly learn to appreciate the versatility of olive oil through one of these tastings. If you are ever in a situation to try one, go for it. It may sound strange to slurp a bunch of fat, but it is an eye opening experience and one that will truly change your taste buds and your palatte for the better.