If you’ve been to the grocery store’s olive oil section lately, you’ve likely been presented with plenty of choices. Maybe even a wall of olive oil with different symbols on the bottles and a whole range of brands to choose from.
The world of olive oil is a mystery to most of us, and you may have the same insecurity that you feel in a wine shop when you think about the abundance of bottles lined up.
My friend Ted called me a while ago and asked: “Should I buy the extra virgin olive oil or should I bring something more experienced?” Yes, the jokes about extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) are simple, but the fact remains: there is a lot of confusion about which olive oils to buy and how to use them.
So let’s get started. What type of olive oil should you have and which one should you use when?
First, let’s examine the meanings of virgin, virgin, and extra virgin olive oils.
The term extra virgin, which can also be referred to as cold-pressed, refers to oil made the first time fresh, young, green olives are pressed or ground.
According to Vincent Ricchiuti, a fourth generation farmer in Fresno, California who started Enzo Olive Oil, “One of the most important things about quality and freshness is how quickly you get the olives from the tree to the grinder.” Its organic olives go from the tree to the bottle within 24 hours.
The taste of extra virgin olive oil can vary widely. Grapes, regions, weather … all affect taste and quality, just like wine. Good quality extra virgin olive oil usually has pleasant bitterness notes, and different oils have more specific flavor nuances: you can hear yourself using words like pepper, grass, vegetable, sweet, or almond. The intensity of the taste varies from delicate to assertive, although good extra virgin olive oil should always taste fresh and clean. The color can range from rich green to golden yellow.
Pure olive oil is made from the paste or pomace left over after the first pressing. Chemicals are usually involved in this process, and this oil is best used for cooking and frying as its taste tends to be milder and less nuanced than extra virgin olive oil.
Virgin olive oil is usually a mixture of virgin and pure extra olive oil.
Very good extra virgin olive oil is best used in cold preparations rather than boiled to get the most out of its unique flavor. Think of salad dressings and drizzle over any prepared dish, from soups to fish to crostini. If there is a harvest date on the bottle, check to see if it was from the previous fall’s harvest.
Some cooks hesitate to use good quality olive oil as it has a lower smoke point and starts to burn at this temperature. Francesca van Soest, technical sales and marketing director for Cobram Estate in Australia, studied olive oil in college and says: “There was this unfounded rumor that you couldn’t cook with EVOO for too long because of its smoke point. If you go to Europe, everyone has been cooking with extra virgin olive oil for millennia. So why do we think we can’t get here? “
Rolando Beramendi, founder of California-based Italian food importer Manicaretti, adds: “You just have to be very good friends with your flames” If you cook with olive oil and make sure the temperature doesn’t get too high.
You may have noticed a large discrepancy in olive oil prices. Where can you be pampered and where can you save?
Buy olive oil from high-volume stores so it hasn’t been on the shelf for months. Aside from local grocery stores, of course, there are online and specialty stores that sell a wide variety of artisanal, extra virgin olive oils in small quantities that can be expensive but well worth the effort.
“As for the money you are spending, remember that we’ll quickly buy a $ 35 bottle of wine and drink it in the same meal. But a $ 35 bottle of olive oil (stored properly) can last for months, so you’re getting more than a good bang for your buck. “ says Beramendi.
If you use a lot of olive oil (and dear reader, I would be), storing it properly is less of a problem as you will consume it before the quality really starts to deteriorate. The best way to store olive oil is to seal it in a cool, dark place (if you keep your olive oil on the stove, don’t!).
Some manufacturers bottle their olive oil in dark or even opaque bottles to prevent light from accelerating the oil’s oxidation. Light, heat and air are the enemies of stored olive oil. When properly stored, good extra virgin olive oil will last for months, and a commercially produced olive oil should last at least a year. If it smells or tastes rancid, toss it.
High quality olive oils come from everywhere. Italy is one of the most famous producers, but also Greece, Spain and, in the last few decades, California. Good olive oil is also made in countries as diverse as Australia, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, and Croatia. In Italy alone, Sardinia, Sicily, Umbria, Tuscany, Apulia and Liguria are among the regions that are revered for their distinctive oils.
Most of the olive oil producing regions are third party vetted and accredited and Van Soest urges buyers to look for these seals on the bottle. She says there is one “Unfortunately, a high degree of falsification and incorrect labeling” around the world.
The world of flavored olive oils is robust too. Enzo manufactures two lines of flavored olive oils. Infused are made on a larger scale from a combination of extra virgin olive oil with organic essential oils such as garlic, basil and Meyer lemon. Then there is the price “crush” Series in which raw materials such as locally grown clementines and Fresno chilies are crushed with the olives.
Of course, like wine, like cheese, like chocolate, to learn about olive oil one has to scratch the surface of a deep and ancient food tradition. But if you just experiment a little, and maybe spend a few extra bucks, you’ll see the delicious results right away.
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