Before there was vegetable oil or the terms poly-unsaturated, there was olive oil. Predated only by the use of animal fats, olive oil has long been the preferred oil for cooking and as a flavoring in all but the orient. True olive oil imparts the wonderful taste of the green olive necessary to Mediterranean and mid-eastern cuisine.
Olive oil is derived by pressing the oil from fresh green olives, the first pressing (a cold pressing) being referred to as “extra virgin”. Each successive pressing is typically aided by the addition of steam or hot water to extract additional oil and yields slightly lighter oil in both color and flavor. For dressings and for the best flavor in cooking, only extra virgin oil should be used. Many people believe that extra virgin olive oil will be dark green in color and have no additives when, in fact, extra virgin oil may come in a range of hues determined by the variety or combination of the olives used. Each variety of olive will have its own unique flavor and aroma and, like the blending of grapes to achieve a particular wine, olives are blended to achieve a particular oil. In the United States, oils labeled as extra virgin may have up to 85% vegetable or other oils blended in to reduce cost such as peanut or poppy seed oil. These are to be avoided if at all possible in favor of oils imported from Italy or Spain.
Recent studies have claimed you should never cook with olive oil for nutritional reasons and because of a low smoking temperature. 3000 years of recorded history disputes this and with a smoking point of 385 to 406 degrees, it is stable for most types of cooking. Another recent myth is that olive oil goes rancid easily and should be stored tightly sealed under refrigeration. Olive oil may be kept tightly capped in a cool dark place in a glass bottle. (If you purchase your olive oil in a tin, always transfer it to glass bottles to store it). Never purchase olive oil in a plastic bottle (it can leach chemicals from the plastic).
Purchasing olive oil in the store can be frustrating and confusing; so many brands and colors to choose from ranging from the affordable to the very expensive. Learning your brands is a good start and for most cooks will be enough, but what about all the other brands? What are the differences? Why are they priced so differently?
The most expensive of the oils are those involving the most hands on labor; these will be the ones where the olives have been inspected and graded by hand, have been cold pressed and finally graded and blended with other cold pressed batches to achieve a particular flavor. These can cost upwards of $50 a bottle. The next level is that where automation is used at many stages to reduce the costs of production. This does not necessarily produce an inferior product and is more than adequate for most purposes.
Let’s look at a few brands.
Of the domestic brands, the only two I recommend are Chianello and Bariani from California priced in the low $20 range for 12 ounces. This is a true organic hand pressed extra virgin oil with good flavor and aroma.
Of the easily available imports from Italy and Spain, the list includes Bertolli and Colavita. There are many other brands available depending on where you live. Bertolli and Colavita, however, can be found in almost every grocery store in the country.
If you are choosing oil for health reasons dealing with cholesterol I would recommend one of the California oils, otherwise any quality oil will serve your purposes. When in doubt, taste. A good exercise for any cook when selecting olive oil is to purchase several small bottles from various companies, taste each and grade according to your own taste.
(1) Pour a little olive oil (approximately 1 tablespoon) in a small glass. Cover the glass with one hand, shake it delicately with the other until the oil adheres to the entire inside surface. Warm oil in the glass with your hands until it is close to body temperature.
(2) Lift the glass to your nose and sniff rapidly and deeply three times (raising your nose up and away from the oil between each sniff). Olive oils have aromas just like wine. There really is a difference in aromas!
(3) Tasting: Take a sip (approx. 10 drops into mouth). DON'T SWALLOW! Roll the olive oil around in your mouth for approximately 6 seconds and then spit it out. The oil should touch all areas of the mouth so that the various tastes and sensations can be noted. Then it is spit out.
There are other tests you can perform at home but for most people it’s all about the taste. Oils can range from a very mild to a fruity to an earthy flavor with each having its own particular place in the kitchen and on the table. Avoid any brand that tastes buttery or acidic, these are signs of oxidation.
Remember that your primary use of olive oil is the flavor it imparts to your food. If you are oiling a pan or adding oil to water to cook pasta, use a vegetable oil. If, however, you are oiling the cooked pasta before adding a pesto sauce use a good olive oil. At the table, whether on salads or served with bread, only use the finest oil you can afford.
For infused oils, wine bottles make wonderful containers. Insert your choice of herbs in the bottle and fill with oil and store in a cool, dark place for at least a month. The difference in quality with that purchased in the market at a high price will amaze you.
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