Olive Oil should be a staple part of everyone’s pantry. It’s good for us and it tastes delicious; however, not every olive oil is created equal. What should you know about olive oils before you head to the store? There are hundreds of extra-virgin olive oils on the market and most of them are quite good. But how do we choose one bottle over another?
How many of us are buying a product because of its price or packaging rather than its content? Labels can say anything at all, and are often misleading embellishments or outright false statements. Sadly, there is manufacture fraud that takes place with olive oil. How do you know if you’re really getting actual 100% olive oil or a mix of some other oils? Let’s first learn about the different olive oils available for purchase.
There are three basic grades of edible olive oil, and several types within each grade. At the head of the olive oil class sits the extra-virgins, followed closely by the virgins. The difference between the two oils and where they rank in the following hierarchy may be just half a percentage point of acidity. However, that is all it takes to distinguish between a very good oil and a great oil.
1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
“Premium extra-virgin olive oil” is nature’s finest, thanks to its extremely low acidity (possibly as low as 0.225 percent). It is best suited for using uncooked in dishes where you can appreciate its exquisite aroma and flavor. Try it in salads or as a condiment.
“Extra-virgin olive oil” has a fruity taste and may be pale yellow to bright green in color. In general, the deeper the color, the more flavor it yields. Extra-virgin olive oil must have a superior flavor and contain no more 1% acidity. As with the premium version, it is best to use extra-virgin olive oil uncooked in order to appreciate its flavor.
2. Virgin Olive Oil
The name denotes that this oil has not undergone any refinement; “Fine virgin olive oil” must have a “good” taste and an acidity level of no more than 1.5 percent. Fine virgin olive oil is less expensive than extra-virgin oil but is close in quality and is good uncooked.
“Virgin olive oil” must have a “good” taste, and its acidity must be 2 percent or less. Like other virgin oils, it cannot contain any refined oil. Virgin olive oil is good for cooking, but it also has enough flavor to be enjoyed uncooked.
Virgin is a poor second to Extra Virgin and is subjected to harsher processing methods. It is also lower in polyphenols and not as tasty.
3. Olive Oil “Refined”
Ordinary “olive oil” is actually a blended oil product. Olive oil producers start with low quality virgin olive oils. For these oils to be fit for consumption, they must be refined using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. The resulting “refined olive oil” is largely colorless and tasteless. Before the resulting product is sold as “olive oil,” the producer blends into the refined olive oil a percentage of quality virgin olive oil to provide color and taste. Unfortunately, this is the oil stocked in copious amounts on the supermarket shelves. Skip it if possible.
4. Pure or “Light”
This type is tasteless and boring. “Lite olive oil” is also called “light” or “mild” oil. These oils have undergone an extremely fine filtration process (without the use of heat or chemicals) to remove most of the natural color, aroma, and flavor. This makes them suitable for cooking or baking in recipes in which a fruity olive flavor isn’t needed. The terms “lite,” “light,” and “mild” can be used along with “extra virgin olive oil,” “virgin olive oil,” and “olive oil.”
In this case, “lite” or “light” do not refer to fat content. These oils contain the same amount of fat and calories as any other olive oil (about 13 grams of fat and 120 calories per tablespoon). The classifications instead refer to the oil’s lighter color and flavor. You’d buy this type of olive oil to make mayonnaise or cook with, since it doesn’t have a pronounced olive-y taste.
Often price is a determining factor in our willingness or reticence to buy a particular olive oil. There are cases in which a consumer pays a higher price only for the packaging, not for the oil’s quality. While generally price is an indication of quality, it is not an absolute measure. It is important to remember that olive oil is a product of nature, so it follows the rule that mass production cannot reduce the cost unless it also reduces the quality.
All about the Flavor
A high quality extra virgin olive oil is perfect as a condiment, drizzled over fish, meat, steamed vegetables, in salad dressings, as the base for mayonnaise to name only a few examples. When olive oil is left unheated, you reap the full benefits of its flavor and aroma, as well as of its health qualities. A gourmet extra virgin olive oil is a little more pricy, but you won’t use very much, so it is well worth the higher price for its delightful flavor. Think of extra virgin olive oil as you would of wine; pair it with foods, find the right match. Use a mild to medium strength oil for salad dressings or as a condiment over mild food. Switch to a robust olive oil to drizzle over fresh tomatoes or a hearty dish. Use your imagination to create various mixes of flavors you like. My favorite place to find my olive oil is the local farmers market, where I’m able to sample many flavors. Even some stores offer olive oil tasting; if you find a place, take advantage of it to decide which oils you like the most. In the end, that is what matters. There is a wide range of flavors found in extra virgin olive oils. Flavors are determined by several factors including type of olives, ripeness of olives, growing conditions, and oil storage.
Facts about Flavor
The following factors impact the taste of olive oil:
Variety of olive used
Location and soil conditions where the olives were grown
Environmental factors and weather during the growing season
Timing of the harvest
Olives picked early in the season yield a fruity olive oil
Olives picked in the middle of the season yield an olive with harmonic flavor
Olives harvested late in the season yield a gentle olive oil
Length of time between the harvest and pressing
Packaging and storage methods
Olive oil should be stored in a closed container, away from heat or light. Correctly stored, good oil has a shelf life of 12 to 18 months.
You do not need to store oil in the refrigerator.
Sadly, there is manufacture fraud that takes place with olive oil. How do you know if you’re really getting olive oil or a mix of some other oils? This isn’t a foolproof way but a great start to test your olive oil by placing a small quantity of the oil in a glass bowl and refrigerate it for a few days. If it becomes crystalline, the chances are good that it is a true extra-virgin olive oil. If it forms a block, it is most likely chemically refined oil that has had some first-pressed oil added to it.