by Chef Melinda Casady

Most of the time I teach cooking to people seeking to be professionals, but on the weekends, I teach the “average Joe” how to sauté, make Coq au Vin, roll fresh pasta, whip up mac & cheese without a recipe, and how to properly hold a knife. I love the weekend classes. Even though it’s a six day work week for me and I might be dragging to get there, I always have a blast. I haven’t had a bad class yet.

You would think that culinary students, who are choosing this as a career would want to be here more than the casual cook, but not always. For some reason, the weekend cooking students sometimes seem even more passionate. They are eager to ask questions, absorb every word you are saying, take notes, work hard and have fun.

One of my favorite things about teaching, weekend classes included, is the good questions — questions that debunk the myths that people have had about food or cooking for sometimes their entire lives. For example, I had a question recently about the practice of putting oil in the pot of water that you are boiling your pasta in. Does it really keep the pasta from sticking together? Well no, it does not. I grew up doing it this way, but does it make sense? The oil is going to float on top of the water and it’s not going to coat the pasta so that it doesn’t stick together. The thing that keeps pasta from sticking together is the fact that the water must boil (by the way pasta is about the only thing in the kitchen that we boil). After the pasta is drained, you can drizzle oil on it and toss it so that it doesn’t stick together. In fact, I recommend it. There is some debate that the sauce won’t stick to the noodles if you do that, but I haven’t found it to be the case unless you go a little overboard with greasing the noodles.

We have different oils that we use for cooking different things in the kitchen, or for dressing, or for seasoning. The thing that kills people is that olive oil is not meant for high-heat cooking. Using olive oil to sauté in an effort to be heart-healthy only ruins the good qualities of the oil. Olive oil has a low smoke point, so once you crank the flame up, you are, in essence, burning your oil, and in the burning process you’ve changed it to a trans fat. So now it tastes bad, and it’s bad for you.

Currently, if you look at the grocery store shelves you are going to see “cooking olive oil,” which means it’s probably a blend, or a pressing that has a higher smoke point. I’m not sure that’s going to be better for you than other high smoke point cooking oils. It’s like diet cookies — there is no way that anything that’s filled with enough chemicals to make something that’s not fat taste like fat is healthier. You are never going to convince me otherwise.

So if you are looking for an oil to switch to that will give you a lovely high smoke point and make you warm and fuzzy about purchasing it because you made a good moral choice, you can pick something like grapeseed oil, which has a high smoke point and no flavor so you can season the dish your way. Safflower oil also has a high smoke point, renewable and little flavor.

I’m sure as soon as I post this there will be something in the news about how safflowers are devesatating the global climate and I’ll have to start all over again, but until then, when cooking with high heat, put the olive oil down.