Olive Oil For Baking? Go Ahead, You Won’t Taste It

A photo of cakes
A photo of cakes

By Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Making a healthy start to the year, I went into the kitchen on New Year’s Day to cook with olive oil. Now I know there are all sorts of people, chefs among them, who will claim “you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil.”

Where they get this from is a mystery, but it’s a myth that’s passed around with great regularity. (I have my suspicions as to its origin, but I’m not free to issue a j’accuse just yet.) And the charge against olive oil simply is not true — as I’ve seen over and over again in kitchens large and small, domestic and thoroughly professional, all over the Mediterranean world, where chefs and cooks alike use nothing else.

It’s fine for your spaghetti with clam sauce, your ratatouille, your paella valenciana. But pastries? Cakes? Cookies? Don’t they fall apart? Don’t they taste peculiarly of olive oil?

Olive oil adds rich dimension to brownies

Not at all! You might detect the taste of extra virgin in the raw batter, but I defy you, once they’re cooked, to tell me from the flavor which fat has been used. And there’s an advantage too, which was most prominent in the olive oil brownies — a lush, rich, fudgy, almost gooey texture that is such a delicious hallmark of brownie perfection. I found agreement from Leslie Revsin, a wonderful cook and chef who died almost 10 years ago at much too early an age. Writing in the magazine Fine Cooking about her experiments using vegetable oil or olive oil, she said the olive oil versions of classic chocolate and carrot cakes had a strikingly richer, deeper character: “The olive oil seemed to act like an invisible helper,” she said, “somehow coaxing superior savor and clarity from the ingredients, weaving them together to create a richer, more alive whole.”

I’m not going to tout chocolate brownies or cranberry almond cookies as health food, but certainly they are minimally better for us if we use olive oil. And the walnuts in the brownies add a powerful quotient of Omega-3 fatty acids, while the almonds in the cookies are demonstrably heart healthy, loaded with vitamin E and other beneficial nutrients. Truly, though, forget about health food for the moment and just enjoy these luscious treats for what they are, made even more delectable with olive oil.

What olive oil should you use with these recipes? Stay away from aggressively flavored oils and especially from fresh, new oils, which are naturally more pronounced in aromatics than older oils. This is one time when you can look at the date on a bottle and happily use a 2012 or even a 2011 harvest oil — just so long as it has been handled properly and not subject to anything that would develop rancidity or off aromas. If the oil smells good but is perhaps a little bland, if it tastes good but without any immediately discernible flavors — that’s the oil you’ll want to use.

The source of the oil is not so important. It could be from California or Chile, from Spain or Greece or anywhere in between, and it could be made from a single cultivar like arbequina (noted for its soft flavors) or from a mixture of oils carefully blended by the producer to make an unassertive oil, much as a winery will blend softer, sweeter varietals with rougher wines to create a pleasant assemblage.

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