Newsflash: there is a world beyond olive oil. Look, I like olive oil as much as the next person and I use it extensively in my cooking. However there are alternatives and there are very good reasons for using some of them. But let's just stay with olive oil for a second or two longer. How often have you seen this statement in a recipe; "use the best olive oil you can afford.
" Well I'm here to tell you that is nonsense. The quality of olive oil is not determined by its price, nor by its fancy packaging. It's determined by its flavor and what you propose using it for. For example, while extra virgin olive oil is perfect for salads, there is absolutely no point in using it for high temperature cooking. When heated beyond a certain point it loses its flavor and most of its characteristics, although not its nutritional value. You might just as well use the home brand oil of the store you're shopping in.
What's more, the store's own brand of extra virgin olive oil will be every bit as good as those costing many dollars more. I never buy anything else, and I have yet to come across anyone who can tell the difference. Just don't let them see the bottle. Adding flavor I mentioned before that with high temperature cooking, such as frying, olive oil quickly loses its flavor.
Fortunately, all fats are not the same and the best way to overcome this problem is to mix the olive oil with something else. You could use sesame oil for example, or add a knob of butter which will not burn because, although the oil reaches its smoking point at a higher temperature than animal fats, the overall cooking temperature will be reduced by the butter. This is not always a disadvantage and I frequently use butter instead of oil for much of the cooking I do. However I use clarified butter, or "Ghee", which is simply the Asian form of clarified butter and is usually sold in tins. Clarified butter is butter with the milk solids removed so that it can be heated to a high temperature without burning.
It's also much better for you than the full fat alternative. You can make it yourself simply by bringing ordinary butter to the boil, skimming off the solids which rise to the surface and then filtering the remainder. But for the life of me I cannot imagine why you would want to do that when you can buy a tin of it that will just about last for ever if kept in the fridge. The great thing about using Ghee is that it retains its flavor no matter what temperature you cook it at without overpowering the rest of the ingredients. Dangerous liaisons Despite what the recipes may tell you, olive oil is worse than useless when used in egg liaison sauces.
It makes them taste bitter. For things like mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce, I invariably use grape seed oil. I find this has a light, clean finish and produces perfect results every time. Corn oil and canola, which is called rape-seed oil in Britain, tend to be rather too oily and I also find them very bland.
As a matter of fact, I never cook with either of them. Even my deep fat frying is done with olive oil. Which brings me to another point. Fats and oils in cooking are mainly used for either deep or shallow frying. In both cases the food that results, with just a few exceptions such as omelets, should be crisp and fat free.
The main reason this doesn't happen is because the fat was not able to get hot enough before the food was added. Don't let this happen to you. Heat your frying pan until it begins to smoke. Then remove it from the heat for a minute before adding food. Do the same with your wok, and make sure that your deep fat fryer has reached full temperature before you even think about adding the tiniest morsel.
If you have any trouble judging the correct temperature, drop a small scrap of fresh bread into the fat and see what it does. It should sizzle immediately and crisp up in a couple of seconds. Remember that all fats are not the same. Refined oils such as sunflower, peanut and corn are best for frying because they reach a smoke point of 450°F, while olive oil - which is what I use for general cooking - comes in at 410°F.
To give you some idea of the difference in cooking temperatures, ordinary butter has a smoke point of around 300°F. One more point. Don't try to cook too much food at once. If you do, you will find that the temperature will drop rapidly, the food will shed water and instead of frying your chicken or whatever, you will stew it.
Better by far to cook small amounts at a time, allowing the oil to reheat between each batch. Do this, and you will avoid the limp vegetables and soggy chips (French fries) that bedevil so many home cooks. .
Michael Sheridan was formerly head chef of the Pierre Victoire restaurant in London's West End, specializing in French cuisine. An Australian, he is a published author on cooking matters and runs a free membership club and cooking course for busy home cooks at http://thecoolcook.com