Is it OK to cook with extra-virgin olive oil?

One of the main things to consider when evaluating whether it is OK to heat extra-virgin olive oil (or any other oil for that matter) is the smoke point of the oil. The smoke point is the temperature at which visible gaseous vapor from the heating of oil becomes evident. It is traditionally used as a marker for when decomposition of oil begins to take place. Since decomposition incurs chemical changes that may not only result in reduced flavor and nutritional value but also the generation of harmful cancer causing compounds (oxygen radicals) that are harmful to your health, it is important to not heat oil past its smoke point. Inhaling the vapors can also be damaging.

Oils and their smoke point

The smoke point is a natural property of unrefined oils, reflecting their chemical composition. When oil is refined, the process increases the oils smoke point; in fact, raising the smoke point is one of the reasons why the refining process is used. To get a better idea of how refining increases the smoke point of oil, look at Table 1 that shows several examples.

Table 1

Oil type Smoke point
Canola oil, unrefined 225F
Canola oil, semirefined 350F
Canola oil, refined 400
Safflower oil, unrefined 225F
Safflower oil, semirefined 320F
Safflower oil, refined 450F
Soy oil, unrefined 320F
Soy oil, semirefined 350F
Soy oil, refined 450F
Sunflower oil, unrefined 225
Sunflower oil, semirefined 450
Sunflower oil, refined high-oleic 450

Olive oil and its smoke point

Before I discuss the specifics of the smoke point of olive oil, I want to clarify some terms used to define olive oils since these terms are often a source of confusion for many people:

  • Extra-virgin: derived from the first pressing of the olives (has the most delicate flavor).
  • Fine virgin: created from the second pressing of the olives.
  • Refined oil: unlike extra-virgin and fine virgin olive oils, which only use mechanical means to press the oil, refined oil is created by using chemicals to extract the oil from the olives.
  • Pure oil: a bit of a misnomer, it indicates oil that is a blend of refined and virgin olive oils.

Now, unlike the information presented in Table 1, the information on olive oil smoke points is, unfortunately, not very clear or consistent since different companies list different smoke points for their olive oil products; this variability most likely reflects differences in degree of processing. Generally, the smoke point of olive oil ranges from 220-437F. Most commercial producers list their pure olive smoke points in the range of 425-450F while light olive oil products (which have undergone more processing) are listed at 468F. Manufacturers of extra virgin oil list their smoke points in a range that starts just under 200F and that extends all the way up to 406F. Again, the variability here is great, and most likely reflects differences in the degree of processing.

Practical tips

In principle, organic, unrefined, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil should have the lowest smoke point of all forms of olive oil since this form of the oil is the least refined, most nutrient dense and contains the largest concentration of fragile nutritive components. Based upon this, I cannot imagine exposing this type of olive oil to high heat, anymore than I can imagine exposing fresh organic flax oil or evening primrose oil. For a natural, very high-quality extra virgin olive oil, I believe the 200-250F range reflects the most likely upper limit for heating without excessive damage. In other words, this would allow the use of extra virgin olive oil for making sauces, but not for 350F baking or higher temperature cooking. It is best to add it to your dishes after they have been cooked to enjoy the wonderful flavor and nutritional value of olive oil.

This page was updated on: 2004-11-18 21:23:47
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation