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Ancient Oil, Modern Marvel

Olive oil has been around since Biblical times, but in this era of rising consciousness about good fats and bad fats, it gained nutritional stardom. High in monounsaturated fat, it's believed to contribute to lowering levels of "bad cholesterol."

What should you know before you buy it or cook with it? We asked the experts, and now we can help you decipher olive-oil tastes, terms — and even delicious recipes that might make you forget what you paid for the good stuff.

Olive oils can range in fruitiness, spiciness and bitterness. Educate yourself by taking several bottles and tasting them. Follow these steps.

Pour olive oils into cups.

(Professional tasters do not take the color of olive oils into account; they can range from yellow to a bright green.)

  • Nestle a cup in your palm to warm the olive oil with your hand. Swirl the cup, with your other hand over the top to hold in aromas. Inhale deeply and see if you smell fruit.
  • Sip a small amount and spread it through your mouth to see whether it's smooth or greasy. Suck in air (a slurping sound will result) to detect flavors of grass or earthiness.
  • Swallow and then exhale through the nose to feel the level of spiciness at the back of the throat.
  • Positive attributes are fruitiness (maturity of the olives when pressed, variety and climate), pungency (the back-of-the-throat biting sensation) and bitterness (a pleasantly bitter taste).
  • Some defects are fusty (the olives started fermenting because they sat too long between the fields and the mill), musty (the olives started molding before being pressed) and rancid (resulting from oxidation of the oil).

Extra-virgin olive oil: The highest grade of olive oil, this oil is made by mechanical means without high heat or chemicals. It has a free acidity of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams and no defects. It can be made from hundreds of varieties of olives that are picked at various levels of ripeness and pressed as soon as possible. An earlier harvest generally creates a greener and grassier oil, while a later harvest makes more golden and mild oils.

Virgin olive oil: This means its free acidity is not more than 2 grams per 100 grams and it may have minor defects.

Ordinary olive oil: Often called pure olive oil or plain olive oil, this lesser-quality olive oil can be a blend of refined and virgin olive oil. Refined means the oil had defects removed with the use of charcoal or other filters. The final product likely was blended with virgin olive oil.

First cold press: This means the oil was produced from the first pressing of olives with a traditional hydraulic press at a temperature less than 80.6 degrees. The less heat and the quicker the extraction, the better the oil; however, this label does not guarantee a good olive oil.

Unfiltered: Serious tasters prefer this oil because it's believed to have less oxidation and results in bigger taste. It could be cloudy due to remaining particles.

Estate grown: In California, for instance, this means at least 95 percent of the olives came from the estate.

Blended: This means the oil was produced using different types of olives grown in different geographical areas.

Light or extra-light: These are marketing ploys and don't explain anything, but could hint at an oil's lighter color or milder flavor. It doesn't affect calories: all olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon.

Read labels. Look for a use-by date. And see where the olives were grown. See if it says how long the olives spent between tree and mill. Olives start to deteriorate the minute they are picked, so the quicker they are milled, the better. Just because the label says it was "bottled in Italy" doesn't mean the olives were grown there. Italy can't supply enough olives to meet demand, so Italian companies buy olive oils from countries throughout the Mediterranean, such as Turkey and Tunisia, and then ship it to Italy. The same goes for Spain and other major olive-oil producing countries.

High heat destroys many of the complex flavors and aromas of olive oil, so use premium, extra-virgin olive oil as a finisher or to dress a salad along with a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper.

An all-purpose extra-virgin can be substituted any time for butter, such as with potatoes or steamed vegetables. It can also be used in baking, with a general substitution of 3/4 cup olive oil for 1 cup butter. Olive oil's smoke point is about 410 degrees, with a high-end, extra-virgin olive oil smoking at about 375 degrees.

The four enemies of olive oil are heat, light, air and time, which all contribute to rancidity. Olive oil should be stored in a cool, dark place and in a sealed container. Some olive oils are bottled in darker glass to help. Use all olive oil within six months of opening.

Sources: Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, olive-oil consultant and member of the advisory board of the University of California-Davis Olive Center; "The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to do with Olive Oil" by Carol Firenze (Ballantine Books, $20, 245 pages); Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC-Davis Olive Center; the International Olive Oil Council; the California Olive Oil Council; and Kurt Spataro, executive chef of Paragary Restaurant Group.

Olive oil has added nutritional cachet to its already lofty culinary reputation. SHNS photo by Florence Low / The Sacramento Bee - The Sacramento Bee