KITCHEN SMARTS: Navigating the varied world of olive oils

If you’ve been in the olive oil section of the grocery store lately, you’ve likely been confronted with a lot of choices. Possibly even a wall of olive oils, with different symbols on the bottles and a whole lot of brands to choose from.

For most of us, the world of olive oil is a bit of a mystery, and you may find yourself with the same kind of uncertainty you feel in a wine store when contemplating the plethora of bottles lined up.

My friend Ted called me up a while back and asked, “Should I buy the extra virgin olive oil, or should I go with something more experienced?” Yes, the jokes about extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) are easy, but the fact remains: There is a lot of confusion about which olives oils to buy and how to use them.

So let’s get into it. What kind of olive oils should you keep on hand, and which should you use when?

First, let’s dive into the meaning of extra virgin, virgin and pure olive oil.

The term extra virgin, which also might be labeled cold-pressed, refers to oil made from the first pressing or milling of fresh, young, green olives.

According to Vincent Ricchiuti, a fourth-generation farmer in Fresno, California, who founded Enzo Olive Oil, “One of the most important things for quality and freshness is how fast you get the olives from the tree to the mill.” His organic olives go from the tree to bottle within 24 hours.

The flavor of extra virgin olive oils can range widely. Olives, regions, weather… all affect the taste and quality, just like wine. Good-quality extra virgin olive oils usually have pleasant notes of bitterness, and different oils will have more specific flavor nuances: You may hear yourself using words like peppery, grassy, vegetal, sweet or almondy. The intensity of flavor varies from delicate to assertive, though good extra virgin olive oil should always taste fresh and clean. The color may range from a rich glowing green to golden yellow.

Pure olive oil, which also might be labeled simply olive oil, is a blend of olive oil refined because it doesn’t meet the qualifications of virgin olive oil plus some virgin or extra virgin olive oil, added for flavor and color. This oil is best used for cooking and frying, as its flavor tends to be blander and less nuanced than extra virgin olive oils.

Joseph R. Profaci, executive director of the trade group the North American Olive Oil Association, says, “While extra virgin olive oil is the most prized grade for good reason, we need to keep the door open for consumers to use lower grades of olive oil if that is what fits their taste preferences and budget.

“Home cooks who are accustomed to neutral-flavored, highly refined seed oils but are curious about the potential health benefits of olive oil might want to start with regular olive oil or even light-tasting olive oils. Think of them as a gateway into the category.”

Very good extra virgin olive oil is best used in cold preparations, rather than cooked, to get the most out of its singular flavor. Think about salad dressings, and drizzling over any finished dish, from soups to fish to crostini. If there is a harvest date on the bottle, check that it is from the previous fall’s harvest.

Some cooks hesitate about using good olive oil because of its reputation for having a lower smoke point, the temperature at which it begins to burn. Francesca van Soest, technical sales and marketing manager for Australian-based Cobram Estate, says, “There has been this unsubstantiated rumor that you cannot cook with EVOO because of its smoke point for far too long. If you go to Europe, everyone has been cooking with extra virgin olive oil for millennia, so why do we believe that we can’t here?”

Rolando Beramendi, founder of the California-based Italian food importer Manicaretti, adds, “you just need to be very good friends with your flames” when you cook with olive oil and make sure the temperature doesn’t get too high.

Where to splurge on expensive olive oil and where to economize?

Shop for olive oil at stores with high turnover, so it hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for months. Besides local grocery stores, there are of course online and specialty shops that sell a wide variety of artisanal, small-batch extra virgin olive oils that can be pricy but singular.

“As far as the money you are spending, think about that we are quick to buy a $35 bottle of wine, and drink it in the same meal. But a $35 dollar 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, that would be me), proper storage is less of an issue because you will use it up before its quality really declines. The best way to store olive oil is sealed, in a cool, dark place (if you store your olive oil by the stove, don’t!).

Some manufacturers bottle their olive oil in dark or even opaque bottles to prevent light from accelerating oxidation of the oil. Light, heat and air are the enemies of stored olive oil. Stored properly, good extra virgin olive oil will last for months, and a more commercially produced one should last for at least a year, though once opened it will start to decline more quickly. If it smells or tastes rancid, toss it.

Quality olive oils come from all over. Italy is one of the most famous producers, but so are Greece, Spain and, in recent decades, California. Good olive oil is also produced 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 revered for their distinctive oils.

Most olive oil-producing regions have third-party verification and accreditation, and Van Soest urges buyers to look for those seals on the bottle to avoid any adulteration or mislabeling of the oil.

The world of flavored olive oils is also robust. Enzo makes two lines: Infused ones are made on a larger scale from a combination of extra virgin olive oil mixed with organic essential oils such as garlic, basil and Meyer Lemon. Then there is the pricier “crush” series, where raw ingredients, such as locally grown clementines and Fresno chilies, are crushed with the olives.

Of course, as with wine, cheese or chocolate, to start to learn about olive oil is to scratch the surface of a deep and ancient food tradition. But just by experimenting a bit, and maybe spending a few extra dollars, you’ll see the delicious results right away.

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