Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Let it Rain!
Has the same bottle of olive oil been in your pantry for a year and a half?
(Why aren’t you using it more often? And bad news—it’s expired.)
Do you choose olive oils based on what the label looks like, or which country it comes from? (Extra virgin olive oil is a lot like wine—tasting it for nuance takes time and practice, and any country or producer can have a bad year.)
Most of us have heard about the healthful properties in extra virgin (xv) olive oil
(not to mention it tastes darn good on a crusty piece of bread!) and it has become much more prevalent in American cuisine than it once was.
LTBB traveled to the agricultural and political, um, hotbed of Sacramento to attend a two-day olive oil tasting at the University of California-Davis. It’s an annual class that sells out quickly, mostly to people in the industry, but there were a few gourmet store owners in there, and us too, slurping on more than 60 olive oils and trying to become experts (uh, can we get a lettuce leaf over here?). While we have yet to consider ourselves experts, what we learned was fascinating—like there are some pretty bad xv olive oil imitators out there. And—good news!—we can be proud of our California extra virgin olive oil producers, who are leading the way in quality, regulation, and taste. This may be the next great thing in American food!
It’s always a good sign when a label says the olives have been cold pressed. This means no heat was applied during the crushing process, which avoids changes in the olive’s chemistry and avoids defects. The California Olive Oil Council, which evaluates oils for xv status, says the oil must have been extracted mechanically from the olive (the most hygienic method) and without chemicals or heat.
Exposure to light, heat, or oxygen can cause rancidity. Look for extra virgin olive oil in dark green glass or in packaging that shields it from light; avoid plastic containers. Remember to store it in a cool, dark place at home; or wrap the bottle in aluminum foil to shield it from further sunlight.
Many people think green olive oil must be richer in flavor than yellow olive oil. In fact, the color of the oil indicates nothing–it’s all about the way the oil tastes in your mouth, and light-colored oils can be high quality, too. The UC-Davis instructors had us sampling oils out of blue glasses so we wouldn’t be influenced by this widespread misconception. In fact, some producers have taken advantage of this myth by adding leaves to the olive crush, which increases chlorophyll and achieves a darker green color.
“Light” or “diet” extra virgin olive oil doesn’t exist, and you can thank the
olive gods for that! A light color does not mean the olive oil is lower in calories,
and anything that says it’s “light” has almost surely been chemically treated to minimize strong smells and tastes indicative of inferior oil, as well as adjusted for color and acidity.
Well-made extra virgin olive oil will never be dirt cheap. If an “extra virgin”
(or so it says) olive oil is much more affordable than the other ones on the shelf, that’s a red flag. Artisanship takes time and money and high-quality olive oil producers have certain costs to cover before they can even start to make a profit.
If you’ve had olive oil in your pantry for more than a year, I’d advise you to chuck
it since that’s about the extent of its shelf life. The best brands will stamp
a harvesting date on the bottle, but sometimes it’s the date of bottling–not harvesting–instead. Keep in mind that most harvests are October (in warmer climates) to March (in colder climates). California’s harvest season is October
to late December.
So why choose a California olive oil over a European one?
Of course, there’s room for all types of olive oils in your pantry, but LTBB has a lot more faith in the California producers, and here’s why:
- The California Olive Oil Council‘s evaluation criteria are stricter than
those of the International Olive Oil Council and call for a 0.5% oleic acid (monounsaturated fat) content to the IOOC’s 0.8%. (The lower the fatty acid content, the lower the chance of rancidity)
- LTBB tasted some Spanish and Italian “extra virgin” oils that have widespread distribution in U.S. supermarkets and they were clearly subpar (even our amateur palates could tell), indicating a flawed certification process.
- A recent investigation found that many large Italian producers were
purchasing and falsely labeling oil from other Mediterranean countries
as their own. According to a 2007 article about the investigation in
The New Yorker, only 40% of Italian olive oil sold as “extra virgin”
actually meets the requirements.
- Then there is the issue of cultural preference. We saw photos from an instructor’s trip to a Tunisian producer’s estate where olives were left to mold in a bag for a month because they said their consumers actually prefer a musty olive oil taste.
But before the Euros get their fitted pants in a twist, LTBB also tasted some bad U.S. oil, and, at the end of the day, the point is to do your research. Find a few labels you can trust and stick with those until your palate can tell the difference when trying new oils.
Aren’t all extra virgin olive oils more or less the same?
Definitely not–both for the variations in fruit intensity (delicate, medium, robust) and the pitfall of mislabeled quality. If the label says “extra virgin olive oil” (the highest quality), don’t believe it until you have done some research. There is a lot of inferior oil (“pomace” or “virgin” oil) that gets a top-quality label slapped on it. Extra virgin olive oil should have no defects–no bad smell, no bad taste, and it needs to be balanced with a certain amount of pungency, or spiciness, in the throat.
So how do I differentiate between fruit intensities?
Unfortunately, this is not an easy thing to do, and it takes practice. Try to think of it as a spice that can be added to food. Start out by buying a brand we recommend, and then experiment with it. Food pairings are very subjective–you might like delicate oil on a salad, or even a citrus oil. And it’s amazing how an oil’s flavor can change when combined with certain foods. Maybe you’ll find you only like one kind of intensity and then you know more about what to look for at the store.
There are three general categories of olive oils: delicate, medium, and robust “fruit,” or flavor. Unfortunately, producers do not tend to indicate on the label which category their oil falls into, especially since intensities can vary from year to year. However, if the label identifies which olives were used to make the oil, that is a
good start (and lucky for you, LTBB has already defined the oils we recommend
- Delicate oil (made from arbequina, leccino, sevillano, taggiasca) is usually a nice garnish for fish, for example. You wouldn’t want to drown out a delicate white fish with an overpowering oil.
- Medium-intensity oil (ascolana, manzanillo, mission) can go well in a salad dressing or with grilled vegetables and poultry.
- Robust oil (arbosana, frantoio, picholine) can be drizzled over steak with a spritz of lemon.
Is there a big difference between cooked and uncooked olive oil?
Uncooked olive oil is healthier than cooked olive oil (a chemical change occurs at its smoking point, when it essentially begins to consume itself through burning). Plus, raw oil maintains its great pure flavor, while heat and other ingredients can change the flavor of cooked oil. Our advice is to use the minimum amount needed for cooking and then garnish the dish with oil from the bottle just before serving.
What’s the deal with unfiltered olive oil?
Unfiltered olive oil, which–true to its name–tends to have a slight cloudiness to it, has a marginally higher polyphenol (antioxidant) content and a slightly longer shelf life (many of our recommended oils are unfiltered). At the end of the day, though, it just comes down to your personal preference.
Can I use olive oil that is not extra virgin?
You can, but why would you? (barring any recipe requirements like sesame or peanut oils, of course) Ask any decent Mediterranean chef–extra virgin olive oil is the only olive oil to cook with because it has the least taste defects (ideally none) and it’s ultimately better for you (potent antioxidants; monounsaturated fats that help prevent heart disease). If it’s a cost issue, there are plenty of affordable options (Corto Olive Co. has a great price point, for example.)
What about flavored oils (citrus, truffle)?
Many flavored oils have the same issue as extra virgin olive oils in terms of evaluating quality. One can use citrus flavored oils or, instead, experiment with adding juice or zest directly to the dish–but think about how a mandarin olive oil could enhance a duck entrée, or a lemon olive oil could accent fish. Truffle oil (or truffle butter, depending on what you’re making, like eggs) is a great way to add truffle flavor without having to shell out for the real thing (plus, fresh truffles are only available a couple times a year). It is important, however, to choose a trusted brand when it comes to flavored oils and butters, as they can be enhanced chemically.
Should I use extra virgin olive oil for frying?
It depends what you’re frying, but generally our answer is “yes.” Most alternative and inferior oils have been treated chemically to strip obvious defects and produce a neutral flavor. Plus, extra virgin olive oil has a great taste that will most likely complement whatever you’re frying. You want to set the oil temperature at 360-365˚ with a maximum of 380˚. After frying, filter the cooled oil through a coffee filter and use it 2-3 more times (only for frying).
FEELING COCKY? (I like your style.)
Test your taste buds at home!
Buy one of the extra virgin olive oils LTBB recommends and then buy a commercial label from your big brand-name store. The following steps will help
you taste the difference.
- Pour a bit of oil into a small glass and warm it up with your hands so the aroma and flavor are magnified. (Smelling it before tasting can tell you a lot, just like wine. There is a long list of “defect smells” but the ones that stood out most to us were a varnish/nail polish smell, or a compost/rotting vegetable smell)
- Sip a very small amount of oil into your mouth and make short sucking sounds along your lower jaw line toward the back of your mouth (so you’re incorporating air into it).
- Close your mouth and breathe out of your nose to allow your nasal cavity to process it.
- Swallow a very small amount to understand the pungency in your throat.
Spit out the rest.
- If there are tasting notes available, try to indentify some of the flavors to train your palate.
- If there is a waxy residue in your mouth, or an astringency (drying of mouth), these are indicators of rancidity.
- Cleanse palate with water and slices of green apple
(bread/starch does nothing).