The internet is obsessed with olive oil and sea salt on ice cream. It's a trend that's long existed

The unique but satisfying combination is rooted in the rich traditions of Mediterranean cuisine

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published April 20, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Vanilla bean gelato with sea salt and olive oil (Getty Images/Ryan Benyi Photography)
Vanilla bean gelato with sea salt and olive oil (Getty Images/Ryan Benyi Photography)

Every few months or so, TikTok discovers a new, often unconventional food combination that instantly becomes a trendy meal/snack/dessert to enjoy. Last summer, folks went gaga over ice-cream-and-Fruit-Roll-Ups, a sugary hack that entails tightly wrapping an unrolled Fruit Roll-Up around a generous scoop of vanilla or fruit flavored ice cream and eating it sandwich-style. There was also the McFlurry-hash-brown creation, in which McDonald’s Oreo McFlurry is slathered between two still-hot McDonald’s Hash Browns. And how can we forget about the feta craze — feta fried eggs and feta pasta became a popular comfort meal for many.

TikTok’s latest obsession is vanilla ice cream topped with two kitchen staples: extra virgin olive oil and flaky sea salt. The combination first made headlines after Dua Lipa, the Grammy-winning singer and “Barbie” star, said it’s her favorite way to eat ice cream during an interview with BBC Radio 1 last November. “I don't think chocolate ice cream is that good. But you know what I like? It's very simple: I take vanilla ice cream and put olive oil and sea salt on top,” the pop star revealed. “I've had so many people try it, and everyone has switched to the dark side.” Halo Top Creamery later used the audio in a TikTok video touting the brand’s own vanilla ice cream alongside the unique toppings. 

The combination has since elicited mixed reactions from folks online. Many were intrigued by the choice of toppings, but others felt the exact opposite, saying olive oil on top of ice cream (fat on fat) sounded far from appetizing. Sure, olive oil and sea salt aren’t commonplace toppings, well at least here in the States where ice cream shops typically offer chocolate syrups, caramel sauce and rainbow sprinkles. However, eating them in tandem with ice cream, although new on TikTok, is a classic treat that’s been around for a while.

While the exact origins of the dessert combination can’t be traced to one specific place, it’s said to have “roots in the rich traditions of Mediterranean cuisine,” per Texas Hill Country Olive Co. In Italy, gelato con olio e sale — which translates to ice cream with olive oil and sea salt — is a popular dessert. It was later introduced to the American public in the early 2010s when New York City’s Big Gay Ice Cream began serving it from its ice cream truck. The famed ice cream parlor, which made a name for itself serving innovative soft-serve concoctions, also inspired a dark chocolate ice cream bar topped with Fleur de Sel from Filipino frozen dessert company Sebastian’s Ice Cream.

Today, ice cream with olive oil and sea salt can be enjoyed at several restaurants in New York City. Chef Missy Robbins’ Lilia, located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, serves up an ice cream sundae called the “Italian Job.” It’s vanilla soft-serve gelato with a generous drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt and fennel pollen. Massimo Leveglia and Nick Baglivo’s L’industrie, also located in Williamsburg, offers gelato con olio in addition to a lemon sorbetto with sea salt and spicy Chilean olive oil. Caffè Panna in Manhattan serves a gelato con olio that features vanilla ice cream with Sicilian extra virgin olive oil.

We need your help to stay independent

“It goes really well with sea salt and vanilla because the vanilla is like a canvas with just a little more complexity to let the spiciness of the olive oil come out,” Hallie Meyer, the creative genius behind Caffè Panna, told La Cucina Italiana, “In general, olive oil goes well on ice cream because it is a totally different kind of fat — the creamy, cold, dairy contrasting against something plant-y, green, and spicy!”

The richness of the olive oil also adds a hint of earthiness and fruitiness to the creamy, sweet flavors of vanilla ice cream. The flakes of salt enhance the flavor and add some variety to the texture. The final dessert is sweet but a tad bit savory, smooth but slightly crunchy. 

Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.

It’s worth noting that olive oil, when cooled by the ice cream, thickens and deliciously coats the dessert in a layer of fat. Around 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, the natural wax particles in olive oil precipitates out of the oil, thus making it appear crystallized, explained olive oil retailer Brightland. Around 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit, the olive oil will form a consistency that is akin to soft butter.

What’s so great about ice cream with olive oil and sea salt is that it’s simple yet elevated. If you’re looking for inspiration, be sure to check out Jamie Oliver’s recipe for the dessert, courtesy of his recipe book “Jamie's Italy.” There’s truly no right or wrong way to measure how much olive oil and salt you’d like in your sundae.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.