"Because old olive oil habits die hard."
How olive oil caught on as the must-have, nuts-and-bolts cooking fat in our home kitchens baffles me. As a fairly accomplished home cook and food writer just recently turned culinary student, I can only plead the "Everything I knew, I learned from my Italian grandmother" defense.
We used olive oil to "butter" our Italian bread, fry our meatballs, and sauté our broccoli rabe. Its green flavor and oiliness ran through everything we ate, and poor butter, as we knew it—that stiff, pale stick of Land-O-Lakes hardening away in the refrigerator door, covered in knife scars and crumbs—stood no chance.
It seemed every cookbook and cooking show host agreed, olive oil was the way we home cooks coated our skillets and browned our roasted chickens and even kept our scrambled eggs from sticking.
Why did no one (that means you, Grandma) ever let us in on the purer, more delicate and delicious all-purpose fat? I speak of clarified butter.
The main reason for cooking things in oil instead of butter is simply this: Oils tend to have a higher smoking point, so they run less risk of burning during high-temperature sautéing.
But, newsflash: When butter is clarified—the milk fats boiled out and separated, until only thick, golden butter fat remains—its smoke point is raised to, well, let's just say it's high enough to sear a thick steak or panfry a potato in. It also keeps longer than whole butter and imparts a concentrated, caramelly and delightfully nutty flavor.
How flavorful? Try this: grab three eggs and a sauté pan. Scramble those eggs one at a time in one tablespoon each of olive oil, then butter, and finally clarified butter. Taste them side by side.
There's no denying it when they hit your tongue one after another: Bitter. Creamier. Ridiculously rich and flavorful.
I still enjoy the taste of olive oil. It's lovely drizzled over a salad, mixed in a fluffy savory cake batter, or poured over roasted vegetables, steak, chicken—you name it. But once you taste your food (really taste it) with the background of sweet, toasty butter, you'll never turn back. Grandmas be damned.
About the author: "Sue Veed" is an editor at a Manhattan-based food magazine and a current culinary student who's trying to learn it all so she can cook it all. She'll take us along for the ride as she makes the journey from home cook to professional. Among things she may never master: looking natural in a chef's hat, and acting demure whenever a pork product hits the table.