Olive Oil: Is Cheaper Better?

The world of olive oil is about as expansive as wine, which makes it challenging to pick the best one. But, does it even matter? When it comes to choosing olive oil, is cheaper better?

“It’s basically a matter of what you want to put in your body,” says Clare Gordon, who recently left her post as pastry chef of Mamnoon to go work for Renee Erickson at her forthcoming band of restaurants on Capitol Hill.

“The stuff you buy to cook with, cooking olive oil, is just not great for you and it’s not a high quality product. I cook with really good olive oil. I fry eggs in really good olive oil. It’s pretty much the only fat I cook with at home, so I want it to be really good quality.” Here are a few more tips.

Cheap vs. Quality:

“Most things that come in cans, in my experience, are actually higher quality. I would say to also look for a small bottle. More expensive is usually your best bet at a grocery store, honestly. It sucks, but it’s true. For a finishing oil for home use, nobody is going to expect you to use a ton of olive oil. Sort of like how you’re not going to find Franzia in small quantities. It’s the kind of thing where a little bit goes a long way, like really good chocolate. Beyond that, not many [olive oil] brands that restaurants use are available retail. If you go to DeLaurenti, the majority of brands they carry are ones that restaurants will bring in for finishing — finishing being olive oil you’re using for flavor, not cooking. Viscosity is a good thing to look for in an olive oil. It should be thick. You shouldn’t be able to see through it, really. [If it’s thin] it probably means it’s been heated in order to clarify it, which is not great. Really good olive oil, you’ll be able to smell it. The way that I was taught to smell olive oil is to rub a little bit on your skin to warm it up and release the aromas. Also, whatever you’re cooking is going to absorb the olive oil before it cooks off, so the flavor you’re putting in is the flavor you’re getting out.”

Virgin vs. Cold Pressed:

“Those are just baselines. That’s like saying an orange is picked and citrusy, or that wine is fermented. I would never use an olive oil that wasn’t extra virgin o cold pressed, because that’s how olive oil should be. If you don’t see it on the bottle, then don’t buy it.”

Cooking vs. Baking:

“I use it to bake when I can. It’s more expensive, but it does add a really grassy quality to some desserts, especially non-aggressively flavored cakes, like vanilla. Basically, when you make an olive oil cake, you usually make an emulsion — a sweet aioli — with eggs, olive oil and sugar and then add your flour and everything. [Olive oil] helps leven it a little — an aioli adds volume. In terms of flavor, it just adds a sweeter, fruitier quality than butter.”

“You can sub aioli for butter, but it will be a denser product because it doesn’t rise as well as butter. Butter has milk solids that allow it to rise (and brown). I would use a little bit less olive oil. It’s a flavor thing, mostly. Olive oil, honestly, is at it’s best at lower temperatures, in like salads and for finishing pastas. As it’s own flavor, it’s better.”

    Clare’s Zucchini Olive Oil Cake

Serving: 1 loaf

Zest of 2 lemons
235 g all purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
250 g sugar
2 large eggs
150 g extra virgin olive oil
190 g grated zucchini, extra moisture gently squeezed out.
Demerara or coarse sugar for topping (optional)

Preheat oven to 325?. Line a 1 pound loaf pan (about 4 ½” by 8 ½”) with parchment and set aside.

Toss flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together and set aside.

Rub lemon zest into sugar with your fingers to distribute the citrus oil. Beat eggs with sugar with a whisk in a medium bowl until light and fluffy. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil as you continue to beat the eggs. Fold in the zucchini with a spatula, followed by the dry ingredients (only mixing to combine). Pour into loaf pan and top with decorative sugar if desired.

Bake for 45 minutes to an hour, rotating at 30 minutes and testing for doneness with a thin skewer inserted into the center. Cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes before inverting and removing parchment. Store covered at room temperature or cold for up to 3 days.

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