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Extra virgin, extra confusing

(article, Jim Dixon)


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[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] You’ve heard that olive oil is good for you. You know that chefs recommend extra-virgin olive oil, even though you’re not quite sure what “extra virgin” means. But you want to make food that tastes good and keeps your family healthy, so you go to the store to buy a bottle. And that’s where something simple — buying a bottle of olive oil — gets confusing.

The selection is bewildering. A specialty grocer such as Whole Foods might carry dozens of different oils, while even your regular supermarket may offer a number of choices. Alongside the extra-virgin olive oils are others labeled “pure” and “lite.” The extra-virgin labels carry important-sounding terms like “cold-pressed” or “hand-picked.” Some oils are organic. Some are straw yellow, while others are bright green. Many are in dark bottles. They come from Italy, Spain, Greece, California, even South America, while their prices range from a few dollars per bottle to more than $30.

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If you get the impression that not all olive oil is the same, you’re on the right track. To sort them out and pick a good one, you need to understand what makes them different. Learning the basics of olive-oil production is a good starting point.

Olives are about the only thing that can be simply squeezed to produce oil. (Avocadoes give up their oil fairly easily, too, but who wants to bother with avocado oil when you can just eat them?) Seeds, nuts, and vegetables such as soybeans yield oil only after extensive processing. 

At a modern olive-oil press, the olives are washed and then crushed, pits and all. The paste is gently kneaded and warmed to no more than about 85 degrees to speed separation of the oil. The low heat doesn’t affect the quality of the oil, but a longer pressing time will, so this step is critical for producing premium extra-virgin oil. The paste goes into a two- or three-phase centrifuge that separates the oil from the watery olive juice, and a cloudy, vibrantly yellow-green oil pours from the spigot. 

The oil is ready to use immediately, but many producers prefer a clear oil, so they leave the fresh oil in controlled atmosphere tanks for a few weeks to allow any fine olive particles to settle.

The quality of olive oil depends primarily on the olives. Good olive oil comes from certain varieties that have been carefully grown, harvested, handled, and pressed. It’s a purely agricultural product, and it’s the lack of industrial processing that allows olive oil to retain its healthful properties, including antioxidants.

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The term “extra virgin” refers to olive oil that meets specific criteria for production, content, and taste. Under the definition of the International Olive Oil Council, an organization based in Spain that regulates nearly 90 percent of the world’s olive-oil producers, extra-virgin olive oil must be mechanically pressed directly from olives with no added heat or chemicals, contain no more than 0.8 percent free fatty acid (determined by the oleic acid content), and have a balanced flavor profile. Virgin olive oil is produced just like extra virgin, but it may contain a slightly higher level of free fatty acid. Virgin oils are rarely sold directly to consumers, but are used for blending.

Any olive oil that isn’t virgin or extra virgin has undergone additional processing, and this refining process removes the antioxidants. Industrial processing leaves the oil tasteless, so virgin oil is usually added to refined olive oil to restore some flavor. If you’re buying olive oil labeled “pure,” “lite,” or something other than “extra virgin,” you’re getting a blend of refined and virgin oil. 

So stick with extra-virgin olive oil if you’re concerned about the health benefits. 

Fortunately, extra-virgin oils taste better, too, although they offer a wide range of flavor profiles. Depending on the type of olives, harvest time, and bottling practices, extra-virgin olive oil can range from sharp and peppery to buttery and mild. Staff at specialty markets may be able to offer some help with recommendations, but you may need to try a few different olive oils to find a few you like. 

And you’ll probably want at least two different extra-virgin olive oils in your kitchen. The most carefully made premium olive oils typically have the most flavor and, as you might expect, cost the most. These oils are best used as a condiment. Keep the bottle on the table to drizzle over simply cooked vegetables, beans, pasta dishes, or grilled meats. A tubular pouring spout that fits into the bottle, available at most kitchen stores, helps regulate the flow.

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Choose a second oil that's less expensive (but still extra virgin) for cooking. Major brands such as Bertolli are blends of extra-virgin olive oils from smaller producers, and the difference in flavor is apparent if you taste one of these alongside a premium olive oil. But the milder flavor won’t matter so much in cooking. Use this oil to sauté aromatics such as onions, garlic, celery, and carrots, the first step in making many Mediterranean-style dishes. Brush it over chicken or fish before grilling, or drizzle it over potatoes and other vegetables before roasting.

Finding good olive oil may take a little time and energy. But once you start exploring the different ways to use extra-virgin olive oil and realize how much better your food tastes, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.

p(bio). Longtime food writer Jim Dixon sells olive oil and sea salt in Portland, Oregon. He writes about food at Real Good Food.


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