Olive oil - Including health benefits, how to use and storage details.

Olive oil
Olive oil is a natural oil that is obtained from the olive fruit. In it's purest form - extra virgin - an abundance of minerals and vitamins from the olive fruit are preserved, due to the minimal amount of treatment and handling carried out on extracting the oil.

Olive oil ranges in colour from green to golden and also in flavour from very mild to very strong. The differences in the types of oils depend on the type of olive, the region in which they were cultivated and also the time of harvesting. The olives must be picked at exactly the right time otherwise the extracted oil could either be too bitter or too rancid.
Although olive oil is a fat, and we are told to stay away from fats, as they are bad for our health, in the case of olive oil, nothing could be further from the truth. Not all fats are bad for us if consumed in moderation, and the truth is that olive oil is actually very good for us.

Olive oil has been used as a medicine and beauty treatment for hundreds of years. Nowadays it is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which recent research has proven to be one of the healthiest diets in the world.

What's so good about olive oil?

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Basically, we need to stay away from saturated and hydrogenated fats, which are the "bad" fats that increase the level of cholesterol in our blood and cause our arteries to clog up, which in turn brings a whole host of health problems.

Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which actually rids the body of "bad" cholesterol and increases the amount of "good" cholesterol in the blood. Good cholesterol protects the heart and lowers the risk of heart and other cardiovascular disease.

Some essential fatty acids such as those found in olive oil and some fish oils, for example, are required by the body in order to keep the joints supple and oiled and the bones healthy and strong.

Modern medical research has also linked olive oil to aiding digestion, protecting ulcers and easing gastritis and constipation. It is said to lower blood pressure and may also be helpful in the treatment and prevention of diabetes.

A good beauty treatment

Olive oil is rich in a number of vitamins, particularly vitamins E and K. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, which destroys free radicals in the body and protects against cancer. Vitamin E keeps the skin supple, smooth and fresh looking and is said to delay the ageing process, which is why it is often added to skin creams.

Olive oil is also said to give shine and bounce to dull hair and strength to brittle nails. All in all, olive oil is an excellent tonic for both inside and outside the body.

One tablespoon of olive oil a day mixed together with fresh orange or lemon juice is thought to maintain a healthy and supple body with shiny hair and smooth skin.

How is olive oil made?

Olive oil is extracted from the ripe olive fruit in the most natural way, by mechanically crushing or pressing the olives. The oil that is obtained after the first "pressing" is the most pure, least acidic and most flavoursome. No heat is applied or chemicals are used in the process and this is what is termed as "extra virgin olive oil". In most cases, the more expensive the olive oil, the better quality and more natural it is.

Types of olive oil

As mentioned previously, extra virgin olive oil is the most expensive, most natural and purest form of olive oil. It comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and is less than 1% acidic.

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As this is the oil that is the least handled, it contains the highest amounts of Vitamin E and other antioxidants, making it the healthiest type of olive oil.

Extra virgin olive oil is too good to be used for frying foods and should be reserved for drizzling on salads and breads or for making sauces and soups.

If the oil that is extracted is too acidic, then it must be refined in order to make it palatable, which means that it will have to undergo heat and chemical treatment. The heat and chemicals alter the state of the olive oil and some of the vitamins, minerals and goodness are lost during the procedure.

The quality of virgin olive oil is not as good as the extra virgin, however, it still has a fine taste and is less than 2% acidic.

Pure olive oil can be slightly misleading, as it is in fact a mixture of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil, as is the oil termed "olive oil".

How to store olive oil at home

Never keep olive oil in a plastic container. Ideally, it should be stored in a bottle made out of dark glass if possible or a stainless steel container. The container should always be airtight, as olive oil reacts to air and becomes rancid.

Try to store your olive oil in a dark cupboard, preferably away from sources of heat and light, as these will also negatively affect the oil.

Olive oil may be stored at room temperature, although a temperature of around 57°F (14°C) is ideal.

Frying with olive oil

New research has shown that frying foods in olive oil is not harmful to ones health and may actually be beneficial.

If the olive oil is not overheated during frying, it keeps its chemical structure better than any other type of oil, as well as most of it's nutrients. It does not start to break down until it reaches a temperature that is higher than which most foods are fried at, therefore limiting the amount of toxins formed.

Another advantage of using olive oil for frying is the fact that it forms a crust or shell around the food being fried, stopping the oil from penetrating the inside of the food, thus retaining the flavour and texture of the food better.

Try not to use your best extra virgin olive oil for frying; a cheaper olive oil will suffice. Just make sure that you are happy with the taste, as some oils can leave a bitter aftertaste.

For deep-fried foods, use the olive oil graded "olive oil", as this can be heated to slightly higher temperatures than other types of olive oil.

Uses of olive oil

  • Drizzle over salad with cider vinegar, salt and pepper
  • Make other types of salad dressings
  • Use to make homemade mayonnaise
  • Brush onto meat, fish or poultry before grilling or roasting
  • Use to make pasta sauce bases and add herbs, chillies and garlic
  • Use to make homemade soups and stews
  • Drizzle over rice salads or couscous
  • Drizzle over potatoes and other vegetables for roasting
  • Drizzle over toasted French bread, rubbed with garlic and sprinkle with salt

Olive Oil Recipes

A number of healthy recipes from the Mediterranean region that include olive oil as a main ingredient including olive tapenade, stuffed grilled mussels, chicken breasts with olive oil and sage and spaghetti with oil and garlic. Don't forget other recipes on this site that use plenty of olive oil and are healthy for example the Andalucian cold vegetable soup, gazpacho, and the Italian pesto pasta sauce.

Olive tapenade

This is a traditional dip from the South of France that is made with black olives. It can be served as a spread on bread or toast or as a dip for crudités.

Ingredients
  • 4 oz (115 g) of pitted black olives
  • 4 oz (115 g) of shelled walnuts
  • 2 fl oz (55 ml) of olive oil
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • 1 crushed garlic clove
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • pepper

Method
  1. Place the olives and walnuts into a food processor and blend together.
  2. Add the chopped onion, garlic and lemon juice and process.
  3. Very slowly pour in the olive oil with the machine running until all the ingredients have blended together and formed a paste or pate.
  4. Season with pepper.
  5. Serve immediately on toast or crackers or chill in the refrigerator until needed.

Grilled stuffed mussels

Mussels are delicious served as a starter or main meal and are very popular in the Mediterranean region, especially when fresh. This recipe is an alternative to the traditional moules mariniéres that is usually served.

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Ingredients (Serves 4)
  • 2 pints of live mussels
  • 1 oz (30 g) of fresh white breadcrumbs
  • 2 crushed cloves of garlic
  • 3 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley
  • 1 tbsp of freshly torn basil
  • 1 tsp of freshly chopped thyme
  • 1 tsp of grated lemon rind
  • black pepper

Method
  1. Wash and scrub the mussels under running water. Discard any mussels that do not close tightly.
  2. Remove the beards if this has not already been done. Place the mussels into a large saucepan and cover tightly with a lid.
  3. Turn the heat onto high and heat the mussels for about 4 - 5 minutes, gently shaking the pan from side to side frequently.
  4. Remove the pan from the heat and discard any mussels that have not opened.
  5. Place the mussels one by one in a single layer into an ovenproof dish. Cover the dish with aluminium foil.
  6. Preheat the grill to medium - high.
  7. In a small mixing bowl, combine the breadcrumbs together with the garlic, lemon rind, herbs and black pepper.
  8. Spoon a small amount of the breadcrumb mixture into each shell, over each mussel.
  9. Drizzle the olive oil over the mussels and place under the preheated grill.
  10. Cook for 5 minutes or until the breadcrumbs turn a golden brown colour. Do not overcook, as this will ruin the mussels.
  11. Serve immediately with a fresh salad and hot crusty bread.

Spaghetti all' aglio e olio (Spaghetti with garlic and oil)

This dish may seem bland and boring but it is anything but. For an added kick, add a handful of chopped chilli. It is also very easy and quick to prepare.

Ingredients (Serves 4)
  • 1 lb (455 g) of spaghetti
  • 9 tbsp of olive oil
  • 5 cloves of finely chopped garlic
  • 2 tbsp of freshly chopped parsley
  • salt and black pepper
Method
  1. Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of boiling water until al dente.
  2. At the same time, pour the olive oil into a small (frying) pan.
  3. Add the chopped garlic and the salt and pepper.
  4. Cook the garlic over a fairly low heat until it turns golden brown but does not burn. The longer you cook the garlic, the more flavour the oil will take.
  5. Once the spaghetti is cooked, drain it and transfer to a serving dish.
  6. Pour over the olive oil and garlic and toss the spaghetti in the sauce.
  7. Sprinkle the parsley over the top and mix together.
  8. Serve immediately with a fresh salad and some fresh bread to mop up the garlic olive oil.

Breast of chicken with sage and olive oil

This is a very tasty traditional recipe from Italy for chicken breasts. Do not be put off by the amount of olive oil, as the lemon and sage add extra flavour.

Ingredients
  • 4 chicken breasts
  • ¼ pint (150 ml) of olive oil
  • 2 or 3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • large handful of fresh sage
  • 2 tbsp of lemon juice
  • salt and pepper
Method
  1. Trim any excess fat from the chicken breasts with a sharp knife.
  2. Place them in a large heavy-based frying pan or saucepan.
  3. Pour the olive oil over the chicken breasts.
  4. Add the sage and the sliced garlic to the pan.
  5. Cook over a medium heat in the olive oil, stirring occasionally. The oil should bubble slightly but not boil. Cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Turn the chicken breasts over and cook the other side for a further 10 minutes.
  7. Remove the pan from the heat and add the lemon juice. Stir well.
  8. Season with the salt and pepper.
  9. Serve with fresh vegetables and fresh crusty bread.
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