Olive Oil: You’re Doing it Wrong

Just because it can be used as a lubricant doesn’t mean it should be
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Olive Oil

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Olive oil is a seasoning, not lubrication.

It seems like every few months a linguist from well-regarded institute of higher learning pens a "words: you're doing it wrong" treatise.

Articles like these are easily shared and highly clickable because nobody wants to sound like an idiot when they speak. Something like:

“Hone” means to sharpen and does not mean to home in on or to converge upon.

Correct: She honed her writing skills. / We're homing in on a solution."

Fair enough. Irregardless of whether or not irregardless is a word, I literally could be less nonplussed.

So, while we're all taking a moment to adjust our vocabularies and speaking behaviors, I'd like to ask the chefs in the room to step aside here with me for a minute and have a serious conversation.

Let's talk about olive oil.

Now, before I start, I know what you're thinking. How could two strapping nautical cavaliers like Popeye and Bluto spend their days fighting over a waif-thin 4 (at best) who dresses like a librarian and has feet the size of Cadillacs? Were the pickins really that slim out there on the docks?  That's Olive Oyl, dummy.  And I'm not here to talk about the mysteries of early 20th century comic strips, we can chat about that later. Just as long as you don't get me started on Wimpy's destructive "eat to make the pain go away" habits.

I'm talking about olive oil. And with all due respect, you're doing it wrong, chef.

I've eaten my way across this country and have the pants size to prove it. One thing I've consistently noticed is that chefs rarely use olive oil correctly.

For starters, I think its name lends to the problem at hand. Yes, olive oil is an oil. And as such it can be used as a cooking lubricant. But should it be?

The answer is maybe, definitely not always or "sure, why not." Just like the Harvard professor and his pesky "specific words have specific meanings" who proclaims that you can't just go around carving up the language or using words willy-nilly, olive oil is a specific ingredient and should be used appropriately.

If you're worried about a sticky pan, use an inert cooking oil, or better yet, get a better pan. Olive oil is not your two-for-one "as seen on TV" solution for lubricating your pan and maybe throwing some nice taste in there as well. That's not a thing. Act deliberately, cook with intention.

Think of olive oil like you would vanilla. Vanilla has oils, but would you grease your skillet using vanilla?  Would you throw some vanilla in your pan and then sauté up a salmon cut? God, I hope not. So, why are you using olive oil like this?

Olive oil is an aromatic. The aromas that come from a finely produced olive oil are damn near the closest thing to heaven on earth. Conversely, the stench of a cheap olive oil could not be any more repugnant. That should have been one of the first giveaways to you, chef: A quality ingredient is defined by its quality attributes. Quality olive oils can smell fruity, or a bit briny, like the ocean, which shouldn't be surprising when you consider the geographical regions that olives thrive in. From earthen notes to fruit notes and all points in between, olive oils can vary drastically. Repeat after me: They're not all the same. It's simple, take the cap off the bottle and smell. 

Olive oil is a seasoning. Once you're done smelling your olive oil, why don't you go ahead and try a little taste. Some of you may be surprised to find out that olive oil actually has a taste!  I know, crazy, right?  Olive oil is bitter, it's spicy, it's peppery, it's nutty, it's buttery, it's earthy. It can be all of these things, it can be none of these things. It's up you to find out, and then use appropriately. Appropriately, like how you would never tell your sous chef, "Oh just use strawberries... or mustard." Why would you do the same with olive oil? Perhaps that metaphor is a bit on the hyperbolic side of things. If it helps, think of olive oil like cooking with wine. I assume you don't just grab whatever is closest to your hand. If your stance is "pinot grigio or merlot, it's all the same thing," I'd like to chat with you about the wonderful and exciting world of real estate sales and how that might be time for a vocation change. Arbitrarily throwing around ingredients is the culinary equivalent of a 9 year old making a "suicide" at the soda fountain.

Once you begin to realize that all oils aren't primarily lubricants and all olive oils aren't similar, much less generally the same, the door for application is now open and the world is your oyster - which coincidentally goes great with a nice peppery olive oil.

Yes, olive oil can be used as a simple dressing on salads. Yes, it can be appropriately paired with the right vinegar for an accent of flavor. But those two uses are about as easy and obvious as peanut butter with jelly.

The right olive oil can be perfect for accents and flavor. As a seasoning, a peppery olive oil and some citrus (lemons, perhaps) can be a fabulous replacement for traditional salt and pepper. That said, like I've detailed above, olive oil in general has a specific taste, and that taste can be integrated into almost any recipe to extend or accentuate umami flavors. Begin to expand your olive oil collection and think of them as separate seasonings with unique flavor profiles and uses.

Okay, I think that's just about enough of that for a while. Here's your soapbox back, I broke it trying to stand on it.

Now back to finishing my literary dissection of the culinary foibles of Popeye and the perpetuated myths that canned spinach has any redeeming value whatsoever. Don't worry, I'll let you know when it gets published, it's a masterpiece.

Ben Vaughn is an award-winning chef and best-selling author, restaurateur, and television personality. You can find more of Ben's writings as a weekly columnist for the Las Vegas Sun, a weekly contributor to the Daily Meal, and on his website bvate.com

Ben's newest book Southern Routes was released in 2015. Ben is also the host of the digital series The Breakfast Show on the Small Screen Network. 

Follow on Twitter @benvaughn.

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