Liquid gold: olive oil is soaring in price – here’s what to use instead in 10 classic dishes

<span>Healthy options … sunflower or rapeseed oil can be used instead of olive oil.</span><span>Photograph: MarianVejcik/Getty Images</span>
Healthy options … sunflower or rapeseed oil can be used instead of olive oil.Photograph: MarianVejcik/Getty Images

If you’re someone who uses olive oil, you’ll have noticed how the price of this “liquid gold” has shot up in the past 12 months. Thanks to extreme heat and drought across the Mediterranean, the average price of a litre bottle increased by 39% in the year to March 2024. One litre of leading mass-market brand Filippo Berio, for example, will now set you back £13.85. Liquid gold, indeed – and a kind of gold that’s become an abundantly administered staple in many of our kitchens. With demand outstripping supply to this extent, the simplest and thriftiest of meals will really start to cost you. Here, cooks explain how to use less olive oil in 10 classic dishes.

Salad dressings

“Sometimes it’s embarrassing when people ask what is in my delicious dressings and usually it’s an own-brand sunflower or rapeseed oil,” says Simon Spence, chef patron of Worton Kitchen Garden in Oxfordshire. At under £3 and under £5 per litre-bottle respectively, that’s saving between 25% and 50% on oil. For vinaigrettes, Spence always opts for these neutral, cheaper oils because the flavours he seeks come from the mustard and vinegar, “and the oil is just a medium for suspending those flavours”.

Ravinder Bhogal, chef and founder of Jikoni, London, chooses cold-pressed oils for their richer flavour – “or a nut oil – something like walnut – which is quite lovely because it still has a nice, distinctive flavour”. Cold pressed rapeseed is £3.50/500ml and walnut oil is £2.50/250ml in Tesco – so both cheaper than olive oil.

If, however, you crave the herbaceous, citrusy notes of olive oil, then Joe Woodhouse, author of vegetarian cookbooks, Your Daily Veg and More Daily Veg, suggests making a herb oil: blanch 200g of any soft herbs (I like tarragon, basil, wild garlic) in boiling water for 30 seconds, then refresh in iced water, squeeze dry and blend with 300ml groundnut or sunflower oil. Then transfer to a bowl plunged into iced water to cool the oil down, preserving the verdant colour of the herbs. Use in place of extra virgin olive oil.

Both Woodhouse and Margot Henderson, the chef behind Rochelle Canteen, London, and The Three Horseshoes, Somerset, often turn to dairy to dress their salads. Woodhouse likes a green goddess dressing, combining yoghurt with lemon juice, green chilli and herbs, while Henderson likes buttermilk or yoghurt, Moscatel vinegar, lemon juice, and a splash each of olive oil and water. Henderson also advises looking to Asian cuisines for inspiration – ingredients such as soy and miso do a great job of bringing out the flavour of vegetables, putting less onus on the oil, she says.

Soup and risotto

Dishes such as soups and risottos usually start with a soffritto, which classically involves slowly cooking finely chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic in olive oil. Rachel Roddy, a cook and author based in Rome, often calls for six or even eight tablespoons of olive oil in her soffritto – “which is a lovely idea,” she says, “but also an extravagant one. I think most of the time I could halve that amount, then keep my flame lower and use a smaller pan, to stop it catching and really coax the moisture out of the vegetables”. Roddy also points out that using olive oil abundantly is a modern approach, even by Italian standards – traditionally, cooks have been sparing with it.

Frying (and aubergine parmigiana)

Itamar Srulovich, one half of the couple behind Honey & Co in London, says, “we very rarely use olive oil for frying – its delicate qualities evaporate as it heats and so are wasted. Use a good sunflower when you need a high temperature, and use your precious olive oil only where it can shine.”

Roddy observes that “deep-frying is helpful because you can use the oil again”; she likes to mix vegetable oil with some olive oil to keep costs down. “As long as you don’t heat it to above smoking temperature [which will change the flavour and carbonise the oil] then you can keep it for seven to 10 days.” Roddy just leaves the whole pan in the oven (“an excellent storage space”) when it is not being used.

As anyone who loves aubergine parmigiana or caponata will know, aubergines are sponges, positively devouring oil in a frying pan if you shallow fry them. Either deep fry using a high proportion of cheaper neutral oil, or bake them in the oven, with just a brush of olive oil, “I’m doing this more and more,” Roddy says, “it requires a lot less oil.” It’s also better for you.

Roast potatoes/vegetables

Spence has never roasted his spuds in olive oil. “It’s much better done with animal fat – whether it is beef dripping or lard, duck or goose fat – if you’re making a dish where you want to add some savoury, umami depth. You lose all flavour if you’re cooking olive oil at temperatures above 200C. If you don’t eat animal fat, look for the most neutral sunflower or rapeseed oil you can find – Flora or Crisp ‘n Dry do the job.” A bottle of either will cost well under half what a litre bottle of supermarket olive oil does.

Srulovich doesn’t like to compromise on olive oil when it comes to roasting, but he does have a new toy which is helping him to use less of it – “with our air-fryer, we can stretch a tablespoon or two over a whole cauliflower, with good results.”

Marinating meat

Spence recommends beef dripping or lard as good, inexpensive alternatives to olive oil in marinades. Henderson, meanwhile, loves yoghurt’s ability to tenderise meat such as lamb.

Mayonnaise

Woodhouse likes sunflower oil for his mayonnaise, to which he adds a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil at the end “for a pop of its flavour”. Roddy likes a combination of 50/50 vegetable and olive oils in her mayo. Spence, meanwhile, questions olive oil’s appropriateness for mayonnaise at all. “I think you want a virtually neutral oil – again, an own-brand, processed sunflower oil is good. In mayonnaise, the oil is more about the lubrication than the flavour. Olive oils, or any raw oils, have too much of their own flavour and bully the end product, in my opinion. I have Italian friends who think this is treacherous, of course.”

Pasta sauces

More often than not, I will use butter in tomato sauce for pasta – sometimes in combination with olive oil. Butter brings roundness and sweetness. “I’m a lot more open-minded than I used to be about mixing my fats for pasta sauce,” says Roddy. “[I use] butter, guanciale [or pancetta], or anchovies, which usually have some oil clinging to them.”

If you stick to Roddy’s advice about keeping your heat low, cooking slowly, and using a smaller pan (to submerge the contents better in the water they release), then – as with a soffritto – you can use less olive oil and allow the likes of fresh tomatoes to cook gradually in their own juice.

Pesto

Roddy suggests making your pesto very thick – “a kind of paste, almost like a ‘pesto concentrate,” she says, “which you can loosen up with some pasta cooking water, or even a knob of butter at the end”. You don’t need so much olive oil to give the pesto a creamy consistency – just a layer on top in order to store it, she says.

Cakes

Olive oil can enrich cakes with its grassy notes, but more often it brings function – ie fat – more than flavour. You can make olive oil go further in cakes by using a proportion of neutral oil (again, such as groundnut or sunflower); you could also try using coconut oil. That said, Spence points out that, while coconut oil works, its flavour can dominate. “Everyone knows that you can use butter; I have an innate dislike of margarines, but you can use those, too.”

I’ll chip in here: the best children’s birthday cake I ever tried was made with Stork. Just saying.

Final flourishes

Woodhouse keeps his extra virgin olive oil for serving, drizzling soups, salads and stews, or putting it on the table to be used as a dipping oil. If, however, you’re trying to do away with extra virgin entirely, you could use those herb oils here, or temper a neutral oil with spices such as fennel, cumin or caraway seed, depending on the cuisine you are cooking from. Alternatively, he says, “make brown butter: melt and cook it slowly until the milk solids caramelise, then spoon this over dishes to add richness and flavour in place of extra virgin olive oil”. Ultimately, it’s in finishing dishes that you most need your good olive oil. As Srulovich says, “treat it like a few drops of perfume to finish an outfit”.

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