Photo by huvulu

About Oil: A Note on the Number One Ingredient

The most important thing you can spend money on in a Greek kitchen, basic cooking ingredient number one, is Good Oil. Seriously. Whatever you cook is going to taste of the oil it’s been cooked in, and if you’re cooking Greek you’re cooking in lots of it.

The last time I was in Greece, there was a huge plastic vat of oil under my friends’ table. Seventeen litres, to be exact. About four and a half gallons in America speak. When I asked my friends how much it cost—and I can’t really remember the exact amount now, but these are very not rich country people who probably harvested their own olives for years—I think the cost was around 125 Euros ($165). That breaks down to forty dollars a gallon, which, when you think about it, isn’t very expensive and it’s local, undiluted, pure oil, from the fall harvest. But still it’s a chunk of change for rural people.

“Expensive,” I remarked, a little surprised at first, and they emphatically replied, “No. It’s not.” clearly a bit annoyed at my stupidity.

“So how long does that last?” was my next question, and when the answer came, “Oh, three months or so,” I had to smile.

This low-income, rural couple were paying more than fifty dollars to cook their meals in good oil, more than a gallon of it, every month. Oil we probably can’t see the likes of in California for less that four times that amount of money. This should give you an idea of why it’s almost impossible to get the same level of cooking in a Greek restaurant as you do in the homes.

Away from Greece, the rest of us, who don’t farm and can’t procure local oil, do what we can afford to, and/or what we’re willing to shell out for. If you like food and can spend whatever you want to on it, you probably have already made your oil choices, and if you budget and/or are new to cooking, you may still be looking or figuring it out. I almost always am living on a shoestring, and I buy the three-litre tin of Puget oil from France for forty bucks these days, which allows me to cook with decent oil for the same money I’d spend plunking out eight dollars a shot at Trader Joe’s. I think the California oil—Mission-style Marsala brand by Sciabica that my friend Tom’s family has been using happily since the 1940s (and that can be mail-ordered)—packs more flavor, and I’ve been using it in my current cooking job for a while now. In the gallon plastic jug, plus shipping, it prices out a little better than the Puget, but so far I’ve just been kind of lazy and it’s been easier to put the Puget tin in the cart at the grocery store. There are a lot of options out there to be explored, and these are just the two I’m using currently, but it’s important to buy something good, and to buy enough of it that you can be generous with it.