By: Kristen Eppich
When it comes to olive oil, it truly is a matter of taste. Much like wine and scotch, the terroir of an olive tree is as much a part of the oil it produces as the grape or barley. Along with its unique flavour, olive oil is considered a very healthy alternative to other oils. High in monounsaturated fats (or the “good fat”), loaded with antioxidants and containing anti-inflammatory agents, it’s one of nature’s gifts for us to consume.
From a cook’s perspective, it’s important to understand the flavour profiles of a product, and the ways it can contribute to the overall success (or failure) of a dish. Here are some factors to consider when making your next olive oil purchase:
The difference in quality
The most common olive oils available to consumers are extra virgin, virgin and olive oil. For an olive oil to be classified as extra virgin, it must be obtained by minimal steps and intervention. Simply, the stages are picking, washing, decanting, centrifugation (or pressing) and filtration. During either the centrifuge (modern) or pressing (traditional) method, the entire fruit, including the stones, is crushed into a paste. The oil is then extracted from the paste. After extraction, olive oils are classified based on percentage oleic acid as well as flavour properties and other characteristics.
At the top, extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality olive oil, with the best flavour profile and no flavour defects. Next is virgin olive oil, which will have a slightly higher percentage of oleic acid and is classified to have good taste, but slightly below that of extra virgin. And finally we have olive oill -- a combination of virgin oils, and refined oils (oils which have been treated to remove flavour defects).
It is important to note that while colour does not influence olive oil quality, many subtle differences in the production process do. Even the type of olive will naturally be distinguishable from other varietals.
Olives that are picked for processing in the early, “greener” stage will often have more ‘grassy’ characteristics, with hints of tomato or artichoke. Olives harvested later in there ripening can tend to be softer, more buttery with floral notes. On top of that, growing conditions (climate, soil type), the method in which it was picked (hand picked vs. machine picked) and storage conditions also impact the flavour.
All these factors result in a broad specturm of characteristics, yet the olive oil flavour profile is mostly classified under the characteristics of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency:
1. Fruitiness - the first characteristic to be detected by both aroma and the initial tasting on the tongue. As you move the olive oil over your tongue, bitterness will be next.
2. Bitterness - some oils are exceptionally bitter – making them exceptionally delicious to some! Although sometimes confused as a flavour defect, but that is not the case when it comes to olive oil (flavour defects include a musty, moldy or flat flavour).
3. Pungency is the final characteristic which you will sense as a peppery sensation in your throat when you swallow.
The ideal olive oil is said to find the perfect harmony of all three of these attributes. However, it ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Choosing your oil
The two most important things to know when choosing an olive oil are what you intend to use if for, as well as your own palate. Some prefer (and some dishes call for) distinctly bitter oils, while others opt for lighter, fruitier ones. Here are some extra tips:
Do a taste test in order to make the right choices and spend your money wisely. Visit a local purveyor of olive oil and taste several. Notice the different characteristics and see what you like. There is no perfect olive oil…it truly is in the eyes (or tongue) of the taster.
You be the judge for an every-day olive oil. There are many good-quality, reasonably priced extra-virgin olive oils available. Extra-virgin olive oil is actually great for frying, but has a smoke point of 410 F. Although lacking the flavour profile, you can use olive oil (refined and virgin blend) if you plan to cook at exceptionally high temperatures.
Treat yourself and purchase some high quality extra-virgin olive oil for special occasions or as an accent drizzle. Remember to purchase in small amounts and store in a cool dark place as they will expire. Finally, consume these oils raw, since they are meant to be enjoyed in their natural state!
Click here for a review on a few mouth-watering olive-inspired dishes from Canoe's Chef de Cuisine, John Horne