How to Properly Cook with Olive Oil

Sarah Pope

Sarah Pope › I am a 40-something, Wife and Mother of three. I hold a Bachelor of Arts in ...


Still having trouble understanding the difference between saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats? Sarah Pope breaks down the difference between the three in a clear and concise way.

She also gives a great overview on how and when to use olive oil in your kitchen for optimal health benefits.

Olives are one of the oldest foods known to man and are thought to have originated in Crete or Syria some 6000 years ago. The golden color of the rich oil pressed from tree ripened olives has been consumed by healthy traditional cultures since as early as 3000 BC. Olive oil is truly one of the crown jewels of fats!

Olive oil is primarily composed of oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturates are one of three main categories of fats. The other two are saturated fats and polyunsaturated oils.

The three types of fats – do you know how to tell the difference?

Saturated fats like coconut oil and tallow, are extremely stable because they pack together tightly courtesy of very straight carbon bonds that are all occupied by hydrogen atoms. Saturated fats are solid or semisolid at room temperature and make ideal cooking fats because of the inherent stability provided by their chemical structure which means that they do not easily go rancid when heated during cooking or form the free radicals that contribute to heart disease and cancer.

Polyunsaturated fats do not pack together as tightly as saturated fats and hence are liquid at room temperature and remain so even if refrigerated. The chemical structure of polyunsaturated oils is such that there are unpaired electrons for every carbon-carbon double bond which are highly reactive if heated or processed in any way. Even simple exposure to the air or light can cause rancidity in fairly short periods of time.

Monounsaturated fats like olive, sesame, and avocado oil are liquid at room temperature yet become solid if refrigerated. The single carbon-carbon double bonds which make up the chemical structure of monounsaturated fats do not pack together as tightly as saturated fats but are more tightly bound than those of polyunsaturated oils.

Monounsaturated fats do not go rancid as easily as polyunsaturated oils but are more delicate than saturated fats due to a slight molecular bend which is not as straight in shape as the carbon bonds in a fully saturated molecule.

Now that we understand the basic structure of the 3 types of fats, it is easy to identify the type of fat that primarily composes an oil as this can be ascertained by simply observing its form at either room temperature or when refrigerated.

If a natural fat is solid or semisolid at room temperature, then it is primarily saturated. If it is fully liquid at room temperature but goes solid in the refrigerator, it is primarily monounsaturated, and if it is liquid when either refrigerated or at room temperature, it is mostly polyunsaturated.

With proper identification of the kinds of fats now complete, let’s turn our attention to the proper cooking oils.

Cooking with what fats  – when?

It is clear that fats that are primarily saturated like tallow, coconut or palm oils are wonderful for cooking as the heat from cooking does not easily damage them or form free radicals.

On the other hand, polyunsaturated oils like sunflower, corn, soy or safflower should be strictly avoided for cooking as they are too easily damaged as those free electrons react too easily with heat or oxygen.

But what about monounsaturated fats, in particular olive oil? This is where the issue gets a bit murky.

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This article originally appeared on It is partially posted here with permission of the author.

Photo Credit: Tomiko Peirano