April 03, 2004
A local celebrity chef was giving his 5 minute radio segment. Someone had asked which type of olive oil is best for cooking; extra virgin or a lower grade? The chef gave the answer I usually do; why heat up an expensive extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) during frying or sautéing just to have the delicate olive oil aromas sucked up the exhaust fan? Use a cheaper, essentially odorless and flavorless pure olive oil or low grade EVOO and then add a drizzle of a flavorful EVOO to the dish as it goes to the table.
But maybe there is a reason for using a better oil. If those delicate aromas float around in the air are they really wasted, or do they add to the total food experience? Cooking smells are one of the reasons we gravitate to the kitchen, they can be a powerful force to bring people together, they can change our mood and advertise our cultural affiliation.
In my book, the smell of food cooking beats the taste as it goes down. The tongue appreciates only salt, bitter, sweet and sour while the nose can discriminate a seemingly infinite number of odors. Taste is really a matter of smell. We can only eat for so long but we can enjoy the smell of food for hours. A meal which takes 2 hrs of preparation is consumed in 15 or 20 minutes. You begin enjoying food the minute you arrive at a friend's house for dinner and smell a potato or cake baking in the oven. When sitting in a restaurant waiting for a table food aromas pique the appetite and add to the experience. Best of all, enjoying the smell of food cooking is calorie free.
We talk about how food is an important social lubricant. I would argue it's the smell of food cooking which is more important than the actual eating of the meal. The cliché of a tribe of early man sitting around a smoky fire watching a chunk of meat sizzle is validated at a backyard barbecue where ribs on a grill are poked as cold beers are consumed. There is something primitive and comforting in the combination of wood smoke and food cooking.
Smells can really travel. Sometimes I wish I had smell-o-vision to watch the fragrance of coffee perking and sausage links sizzling wend its way to the back bedrooms in my house to wake my teenage kids in the morning. And those smells can stick around for hours. We have one back room which hours later tattles on my wife for burning the toast.
That ability to travel lets aromas attract a crowd. People gravitate to where food is cooking. A street fair without the smell of meat on a stick and a theater without the smell of buttered popcorn wouldn't be quite the same. Cooking smells act like a beacon to attract people to the beach boardwalk to buy fudge and cotton candy. Hamburger joints aren't wasting their cooking odors by pumping them out the exhaust fan; they're advertising.
Driving through a neighborhood at dinner time is a different experience with a convertible or motorcycle. Cooking smells tell you what's for dinner. You can tell who likes garlic and who's having curry. The cooking impaired who order a pizza delivery are missing out on a big part of their food experience.
The oil you use for cooking is a part of your cultural heritage. Indian food has the smell of ghee, not at all like the smell of food sautéed in butter in a French kitchen. Hispanic Americans use lard while olive oil is associated with Mediterranean food.
The cooking smells of your parent's kitchen can make you feel safe and comfortable. Aroma therapists claim to utilize naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit. While physicians may find it hard to believe that smells can change the mind, businesses are convinced.
They spend millions on fragrances to sell everything from toilet paper to new cars. Cooking smells can also put you in the mood to buy a house according to a realtor friend. She swears that frying onions or baking chocolate chip cookies before an open house will perfume the air and lead to an offer. Perhaps cooking those onions in a premium extra virgin oil would get a higher offer than pure oil would.