Olive oil has been back in the spotlight over the past couple of years, thanks to celebrities like Mario Batali. Our love affair with olive oil began over 5,000 years ago in the Mediterranean. Its mystical glow illuminated history. In fact, references to olives, olive trees and olive oil are drizzled throughout the Bible and other ancient writings.
Olive oil has been more than mere food to the peoples of the Mediterranean: it has been medicinal, magical, an endless source of fascination and wonder and the fountain of great wealth and power. Homer called it “liquid gold.” It was valued so highly at one point that olive oil was used as currency. In ancient Greece, athletes ritually rubbed it all over their body to help them perform at their best.
The olive tree and its branches are symbols of abundance, glory, peace and gave its leafy branches to crown the victorious in the original Olympic Games and after bloody war. It has also been used to anoint the noblest of heads throughout history. Olive crowns and olive branches, emblems of benediction and purification, were ritually offered to deities and powerful figures. The olive tree is so revered that in several countries throughout Europe it is illegal to chop down or harm an olive tree.
The Mediterranean climate provides the perfect growing conditions for olive trees. The warm, sunny days with cool, ocean mist-filled nights produce ideal growing conditions. Although these conditions can be found in other places in the world, like Turkey, California, Arizona and New Mexico, the most sought-after oils are from Italy, Spain and Greece.
We treasure extra-virgin olive oil for its nutritional and salutary virtues. Various medical journals have reported the numerous health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil. It is the most digestible of the edible fats: it helps to assimilate vitamins A, D and K; it contains essential acids that cannot be produced by our own bodies; it slows down the aging process; and it helps bile, liver and intestinal functions. Olive oil naturally contains a variety of antioxidants and is high in monounsaturated fats (the good kind!). Any of these properties alone would be enough of a reason to buy olive oil, but its culinary virtues make it even more attractive. A top quality, flavorful olive oil is multifaceted. It can be used as an ingredient for cooking or baking, as a topping when drizzled onto pastas, soups and stews and can be savored as a flavorful dipping sauce for a good French bread.
For example, olive oil can reduce the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat in many types of bread. Many bakers use it for traditional breads such as pizza and focaccia. Try replacing butter in breads and other savory dishes with olive oil. Since the conversion from butter to olive oil requires less fat, the calories from fat are reduced. Keep in mind that this substitution will affect the texture and flavor.
Not only is olive oil a delicious and healthy alternative to other oils for baking, it is popular for deep frying. Some people are concerned that frying will unnecessarily add a large amount of fat to their food, but frying food at the correct temperature forms an immediate seal that helps to retain the interior moisture and cooks the food by steam. Removing finished foods from the pan and draining on racks over paper towels allows excess fat to drip away for the lowest possible calories from fat.
Five Tips for Frying:
- Use an instant read thermometer
- Deep fry at 350 to 365 degrees.
- To avoid lowering the temperature of the oil during frying, do not crowd the pan.
- For best coverage, use at least 2 1/2 inches of oil.
- To eliminate as much excess fat as possible, drain fried foods on wire racks.
If you are excited about using more olive oil, then the next question becomes which one to purchase. The price of extra-virgin olive oil varies greatly. The two main factors that determine the price of olive oil are where the olives are grown and which harvesting methods are implemented. Certain locations yield more bountiful harvests. For example, olive trees planted near the sea can produce up to 20 times more fruit than those planted inland. Consequently, their oil frequently is sold for less. Some of the most expensive olive oils are produced by olive trees that are centuries old. Similar to grape vines the older the tree the less it produces, however the olives that are produced by that tree tend to be full of flavor and worth the price that they command.
The major factor in price is how the olives are harvested. Many of the lower priced extra virgin olive oils are mechanically harvested. Whereas, some of the more expensive oils are hand harvested.
Even with its long history in and out of the kitchen, we are still confused by descriptive terms like Extra Virgin, Virgin, Pure, Cold Pressed and Unfiltered. Fortunately, all of these terms deal with either the quality or grade of oil or its processing method. Olive oil processing is a multi-step technique, following these steps:
- Within 24 to 48 hours of picking, the olives are pressed into a paste.
- Next, the oil is separated from the paste by centrifugation, which involves spinning the paste at high speeds to remove any naturally-occurring water. This process is also called cold pressing. The first pressing extracts extra virgin and virgin oils.
- The oil is then graded by acidity testing.
- After the first press oil has been extracted from the olive paste, second and third pressings are done to produce pure, light and pumace oils.
- With each subsequent pressing, heat and solvents are added to extract as much of the oil as possible.
- The next step in olive oil production is more complicated and a true art form. The oil maker blends different oils to reach the ideal color and flavor.
- After they are pressed, extracted, and blended, olive oils are graded according to quality, the degree of acidity they contain and their production process.
Here’s a quick guide to the terms you may find on a bottle of olive oil:
Extra Virgin: This oil is made from the first cold pressing of olives and contains no more than .5 to 1% acidity. Considered the finest and the fruitiest olive oil, it is also generally the most expensive due to its time-consuming process and limited production. It offers the widest range of flavor and aroma and is often described as having a perfect, fruity taste and slightly green appearance.
Virgin: This oil is also a cold-pressed oil, except the acidity level is slightly higher than extra virgin olive oil. Generally between 1.5 to 2% acidity. Slightly less distinctive flavor than extra virgin olive oil.
Semi Fine: This oil is a blend of extra virgin and virgin oils and contains 3% acidity.
Pure: This oil falls well below extra virgin or virgin in style, color and flavor. This oil is generally used as an ingredient when you don’t want the oil to dominate the flavor of the dish.
Cold Press: Fine extra virgin and virgin olive oils are processed through cold or mechanical pressing. It’s a natural, chemical free process involving only pressure, which produces a low level of acidity in the oil.
Filtered vs. Unfiltered: Many olive oils are filtered using cotton cloths to remove remaining particles of the olive, creating a transparent oil. Unfiltered olive oil appears cloudy because tiny particles of olive fruit settle to the bottom. Despite the obvious differences in appearance and consistency, the filtering process has little effect on the oil’s true flavor.
Olive oil tastings are popping up at food and wine events throughout the country. Oil aficionados will sip it straight from a glass similar to a wine glass, looking for distinct flavors and levels of complexity. Here are some commonly used terms when referring to the flavor of olive oil:
Fruity: A “fruity” and very distinct olive taste
Sweet: A pleasant, sweet olive taste, like ripe fruit
Peppery: Spicy, with a slightly prickly feeling to the taste buds
Green: Green in color with the taste of freshly cut grass, not sweet
Regional olive oils have become very popular in recent years. They can be domestic or imported and will vary in flavor, color and fragrance. The fine nuances in flavor, texture and scent among regional oils make them highly desirable to olive oil connoisseurs and foodies alike.
Similar to wine, olive oils produced in different regions have different flavor profiles and characteristics. Here is a guide to some of those flavors, characteristics and suggested uses:
- Robust flavor with deep color and a peppery finish
- Blended to stand up to ripe tomatoes, roasted vegetables, meat and pasta dishes
- Subtle flavors with a sweet, buttery finish
- Ideal for salads, sauces and frying
- Clear, fruity flavor with a peppery finish
- Works well with stews, soups and steamed vegetables
- Green grass flavor with a mild pleasant finish
- Good for frying and sautéing.
Tips for Storing & Using Olive Oil
Olive oil should be used within 12-18 months of purchase.
Once opened, we recommend using the oil within 3 months for optimum flavor.
Olive oil will become rancid if not handled properly. Unlike fine wine, it does not improve with age. It is best not to purchase large amounts, unless it will be used quickly.
If you need to decant it into a smaller container, use terra cotta, green or brown glass, stainless steel or tin for best results. These containers help to protect the oil from light.
Never use a plastic container; it will impart the taste of plastic into the oil.
Make sure your container has a very tight lid.
The oil should be kept in a cool dark place, such as a pantry. Light and heat will make olive oil spoil quickly.
Do not refrigerate – Refrigeration causes condensation to form on the inner lip of the container and the water will fall back into the oil and diminish the flavor.