Save or Splurge: Olive Oil

by elleryturner

One of the recurring posts I’ll be writing is “Save or Splurge,” in which I’ll help you decide whether to go cheap or go for broke on certain foods.  In this post, I’ll help you maneuver through the olive oil aisle to help you select the most healthful and budget-friendly oil.

It’s been used for millenia in various ways and has long been heralded for its health benefits.  It’s high in monosaturated fats (the good kind), is believed to help prevent heart disease, and is beneficial for the digestive system.  Homer called it “liquid gold.”  Lucky for you, Homer’s romantic description of the super oil doesn’t have to reflect it’s modern-day cost.

The first rule of buying olive oil is: ignore the pictures and logos.  In fact, check the back of that bottle – while the picture leads you to believe it was produced somewhere in Tuscany where the sun is perpetually setting, that bottle of oil may be coming from somewhere less picturesque…don’t get caught paying a pretty penny just for a pretty label.

Look for olive oil that is cold pressed.  This refers to a method of extracting the oil in which the olives are pressed without being heated, and no chemicals are used in the process, producing a higher quality oil with low acidity.  It should say “cold pressed” somewhere on the label if this is the process used.

The second rule?  Take a purity pledge.  Go for extra virgin instead of refined.  In the simplest terms, refined goes through a more extensive process that uses chemicals to extract the oil. 

And finally, don’t count out your grocer’s house brand.  Most grocers have lots of staples like olive oil included in their house brand line, and you’re usually able to find one at a decent price that was cold pressed, extra virgin, and maybe even bottled in Italy, Spain or Greece – the three main producers.

Save or Splurge?  Land somewhere in the middle.  Don’t spend an outrageous amount on a trendy bottle, but do spend the extra dollars to fit within those three guidelines.  If you can’t find one within your budget, the origin of the oil should be where you compromise.  I use Earthfare’s brand – cold pressed, extra virgin, and bottled in Argentina.

A couple of tips for making that oil last?  Olive oil should mainly be used in dressings, marinades, and for sauteing.  It has a lower smoking point than other oils, which means it can burn easily and should not be used for frying.  Peanut oil or vegetable oil would be a better option for deep frying or pan frying a dish.

Heat up your pan before adding in the oil.  Once the pan is hot, add the olive oil, and let the olive oil heat up before adding the other ingredients.  Adding cold ingredients to cold oil in a cold pan will just cause your food to soak up the oil when it heats, requiring you to use more oil (subsequently adding extra calories).

My favorite recipe for a quick salad dressing – using ingredients you probably already have on hand – is below.  It serves a dual purpose as an excellent quick-marinade for chicken!

5 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon dijon mustard (only have yellow mustard in the fridge? that works fine, too!)

1/2 tablespoon agave nectar (honey or maple syrup can be substituted)

Whisk the vinegar into the oil first until fully integrated, then whisk in the dijon and agave.

This makes enough dressing for two big salads.  Increase amounts to match the amount of meat you’re using if making for a marinade.

As I mentioned before, olive oil leads a secret life as a health and beauty hero.  Need a quick DIY Christmas idea?  Buy a cheap bottle of olive oil, combine it with raw sugar or sea salt and a couple drops of vanilla extract, and pour into a Mason jar tied with a cute bow.  This makes an incredible (and incredibly cheap) hand and body scrub that is especially luxurious in the dry winter months!