Time for an oil change?
You know, there was a time when I picked up any old olive oil at the grocery store and used it for everything. How did I choose? It was probably the one on sale. But the truth is, olive oils are as diverse and varied as wine. So how DO you choose?
I’ll share some guidelines I now follow when choosing an olive oil to use in my salads. I also did a mini taste test of my own. I chose 3 olive oils that are readily available on our supermarket shelves. And I chose 3 award winning olive oils that I ordered through Amazon. The results were even surprising to me!
Although there are more than 1000 varieties of olives, there are 2 main colors of olives, green and black. The color of an olive is determined by it’s degree of ripeness. Green olives are unripe. Black olives are fully ripe. And the colors in between, the reds and purples, denote the changes the olives go through on their way to ripeness. Olives ripen in fall and winter, where they change from green to dark purple.
Olive oil is pressed from green, unripe olives. All fresh olives are pretty sharp and bitter in taste. They need to be processed to make them edible. The process removes oleuropein, which is the sharp bitter compound that is found in the skins of olives. There are many styles and flavors of olives based on variety, where they grew, ripeness and processing method.
A Brief Understanding of How Olive Oil is Made
Very simply, olive oil is the oil that’s obtained from the fruit of olive trees. It will differ depending on the type of olive that’s used and the region it comes from. Olive oil is graded by it’s level of acidity. But don’t let color be your guide in determining 2 grades of olive oil apart, since color will differ from brand to brand. Look for an olive oil that is cold pressed. This means that no heat is used to extract oil from the olives. Adding heat to the process allows producers to extract more oil from the olives; but it also destroys the delicate flavors and aromas. Unrefined oils are pure and untreated. Refined oils are treated to remove flaws. Refined oils are not bitter, but they also have little or no olive aroma and flavor.
Extra Virgin, Virgin, Regular or Light
In all virgin olive oils, the oils are extracted from the olives strictly by mechanical means and without chemicals or heat. Extra virgin olive oils are unrefined and the highest quality you can buy. They have a low level of oleic acid. Because of how they’re made, they retain more true olive taste. The colors range from a deep grassy green to a bright yellowy gold with a distinct light, peppery flavor.
Virgin olive oils are also unrefined, meaning no chemicals or heat are used in extracting the oils from the fruit. But they have a slightly higher level of oleic acid and a less intense flavor. These, however are rarely found in grocery stores. (Your choices are usually extra virgin, regular and light).
Regular olive oil is simply labeled olive oil or pure olive oil. It’s a blend of virgin and refined (meaning heat and/or chemicals are used in the process of extracting and removing flaws). They are a lower quality, with a higher level of oleic acid, a lighter color and a more neutral flavor. These tend to be used for more all purpose cooking.
Light oil is a refined, heat treated olive oil which is lighter in flavor, not lower in calories. It has a neutral flavor and a higher smoke point so it’s often used in cooking, baking and frying.
Let’s Talk About Taste
In my own little taste test, I blindly tasted 3 common olive oils you can readily find at your local market. I chose 2 “Italian” olive oils, and one Californian.
As you can see, there’s not a lot of difference in the color of the oils. But there was certainly a significant difference in aroma and flavor. The California Olive Ranch oil is roughly $15 for 16.9 fluid oz. Cento was $16.99 for 34 fluid oz. And the DELALLO olive oil was about $6.99 for 16.9 fluid oz.
Just like wine, there are many flavor profiles to olive oil such as spicy, nutty, floral, bitter, fruity and herbal. They should always taste clean and fresh on the palate, with no waxy residue. They should finish with a peppery note that begins on your tongue and migrates to the back of your mouth. I tasted each of my olive oils by dipping a little piece of Italian bread into them. And I actually had to take a little break in the testing because while an oil may have started off on a fruity or grassy flavor, that peppery punch definitely kicked in at the back of my throat. So good, though!
Above are 3 winners of the New York International Olive Oil Competition. I found the Regno Degli Ulivi in a specialty market for $15 for 16.9 fluid oz. I ordered the other 2 from Amazon. The PJ Kabos was $23.99 for 16.9 fluid oz. And the Dehesa de La Sabina was $23.41 for 16.8 fluid oz. Again not much difference in color. But each, pretty different and delicious.
I never used to look very closely at the labels on olive oil before. I simply looked to make sure it was extra virgin. But there are a few things to look for to assure that your olive oil will taste great.
Some labels may have a Harvest Date. There is no mandate for this, and so you won’t find it on all bottles of olive oil. And while it’s not meant to be an indicator of freshness, keep in mind that unlike wine, olive oil is not meant to age. But olive oil is generally good for 2-3 years after the harvest.
More importantly, you should be looking for a Sell By Date. It’s an indication by producer and bottler as to how long the bottle will last under good storage conditions. However, once a bottle is opened, it should be used within 2-3 months. Sometimes you are tempted to buy a large size that is on sale because you think you use it so often anyway. But a good rule of thumb is to buy an amount that you believe you will use in 1 month.
Here’s a good looking label.
This label seems questionable. Product of Italy doesn’t mean it was made there. And what’s with the combination of regions of olives?
Yes, the cost of some olive oils are right up there with the cost of a bottle of your favorite wine! Keep in mind that the cost is determined by many factors such as the production cost, the weather conditions for a particular crop’s year, and the fact that the best olive oil’s olives are usually harvested by hand! And extra virgin olive oil is usually more expensive due to the higher costs at each state of production from grove to bottle. When I’m making a salad dressing from scratch, it is important to have one that has a flavor which will compliment my salad. But only you can decide what olive oil and price is right for you and your needs.
So now, let me reveal my 2 favorite olive oils!
I loved the PJ Kabos for it’s wonderful aroma and incredibly smooth flavor. Kind of mild and mellow with that great peppery kick. And I also was surprised to find that in my blind taste testing of my grocery store regulars, California Olive Ranch was my favorite. It has a wonderfully fruity start with an intense peppery finish. Both are delicious. And while I now have a nice collection of specialty olive oils, it’s nice to know I have a comfortable favorite always at the ready at my local market.
I hope you found this helpful. And I’d like to leave you with some notes, interesting facts and advice.
- Use extra virgin olive oil when you can.
- Use more flavorful extra virgin olive oils for salad dressings, dipping bread, dips and dishes that aren’t cooked and for finishing.
- Use more neutral flavored olive oils in cooking.
- Store your olive oil away from heat in a dark, room temperature cupboard.
- When you bring your olive oil home, smell and taste it. If it’s rancid, return it.
- Good quality olive oil should be grown, pressed and bottled in a single country.
- “Product of Italy” doesn’t mean the olives are grown and pressed in Italy, just that it was packaged there.
- Olives and trees have been revered since ancient times, as early as 3500 BC.
- 1 quart of extra virgin olive oil requires 2000 olives.
- The olive tree is a member of the Evergreen family.
- Olive oil contains large amounts of antioxidants, which have anti-cancer properties.
- Olive oil may help prevent strokes, protect against heart disease and fight Alzheimer’s Disease.
- Olive oil has strong anti-inflammatory properties and can help treat Rheumatoid Arthritis.