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Extra-virgin olive oil in desserts isn’t new or revolutionary. There are plenty of recipes for olive oil cakes, ice creams, and cookies—many of them on this very site! But what about experimentation? What about swapping extra-virgin olive oil for butter or another fat in your favorite dessert recipe? I often get asked, “Like, um, can you just do that?” or, more simply, “What?”
The answer is kinda—but carefully! Here’s how to do it:
Choosing the right kind of recipe to start with can improve the odds of getting good results.
A cake that gets its structure and crumb from whipping air into a solid fat (like butter or shortening) is a poor candidate for substituting extra-virgin olive oil—whipped oil just doesn’t hold much air. For that reason, I wouldn’t try to convert a butter cake or pound cake by simply swapping extra-virgin olive oil for butter. It’s likely to take several other changes to make it work. If you want to create a new extra virgin olive oil pound cake or butter cake, start with one that has already been invented and try some variations from there.
Instead, look for recipes where the fat is already a liquid (oil) or where the butter is melted before it’s added to the batter. Think brownies, certain kinds of cookies, sponge and genoise cakes, cakes made with oil, and chocolate nut tortes (like the one below). When you use extra-virgin olive oil instead of melted butter, use 10-15% less oil than the amount of butter called for (oil is 100% fat while butter has some water and milk solids in it, so using the full amount may result in a greasy or too-gooey outcome). Sometimes—when making brownies, for example—I get the best texture by adding a little water to the recipe to replace the water that was in the butter!
There are a few tradeoffs and pitfalls: Olive oil does not promote the same amount of browning that butter does, so cookies may or may not come out with the brown crispy edges you might expect. That being said, I’ve had great success with extra-virgin olive oil tuiles. They come out gorgeously golden brown and totally crispy, just as they should. Meanwhile, and unfortunately, leaveners like baking powder and soda sometimes bring out unpleasant flavors in olive oil. I haven’t figured that out yet, so I usually hedge my bets by avoiding recipes with those leavenings when I want to experiment with olive oil.
Finally, keep in mind that extra-virgin olive oil is a significant flavor ingredient, not just a neutral fat or “healthy” substitute for another fat. Celebrate rather than try to hide the flavor by making sure it plays well with the others in your recipe. Fortunately, olive oil tastes great with all kinds of ingredients, including chocolate, nuts, cheeses, fruits, herbs, spices, and aromatics.
The recipe that follows is based on my recipe for the classic Queen of Sheba cake. I decreased the amount of oil in comparison with the amount of butter called for in the original recipe. A nuance of orange adds subtle fragrance to the dance of flavors—almonds, bright Arbequina olive oil, and fruity dark chocolate. A finish of flakey salt and drops of extra-virgin olive oil seal the deal.
- 1/2 cup (70 grams) whole almonds (or 70 grams almond flour/meal)
- 3 tablespoons (25 grams) all-purpose flour
- 6 ounces (170 grams) bittersweet 70% chocolate, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup (110 grams) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1 medium bright-skinned orange, preferably organic and unsprayed
- 3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar, divided
- 4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
- 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
- A pinch or two of flakey sea salt such as fleur de sel or Maldon
- Additional olive oil, for drizzling
Have you ever tried substituting olive oil for butter in desserts and had success (or even failure)? Tell us in the comments below!