Olive Oil 101

olives - zakynthos-1How to choose an olive oil (+ bonus tips for choosing truffle oil!)

 With so many olive oils out there, it can be a bit overwhelming when choosing one to suit your tastes.  You want high quality oil, but how do you know if an olive oil is “good”?  Is there an oil that is ideal for cooking? Dipping? Drizzling? Here are a few tips for choosing olive oil from our friend and gourmet expert, Glenn Greenwood at Ritrovo Selections to make your next olive oil hunt a bit more enjoyable:

What makes an excellent olive oil?

An excellent olive oil is a large part determined by the grower.  Timing is important in harvesting, pressing, and bottling olive oil.  A good grower knows the perfect time to harvest.  If the harvester waits a bit too long, the olives could be too ripe, yielding a higher acidity and a sweeter taste.  The grower should have a press close by so that the olives are pressed within hours of being harvested.  Lastly, the grower should bottle and store the olive oils so as to minimize oxidation.

The most quality extra virgin olive oils have a low acidity, high levels of polyphenol anti-oxidants, and low peroxide levels.  All of these are indicative of how well the grower harvested, pressed, and bottled the olives.

This is all great, but how can I possibly know all this from looking at the bottle?

Good point! Here are five things to look for on an olive oil label that can tell you the quality of the oil:

1) The words “ Extra Virgin”

For an olive oil to be called extra virgin, it must have an acidity level below .8.  This lower acidity means less oxidation, or fresher oil.

Olive oils labeled “light” are not real olive oil.  They are odorless and flavorless refined oils that are chemically extracted from the remains of the already pressed olives.  Olive oil is then added to the refined oil to give it flavor and color.

2) Specific origin of the oil (not just the country!)

The quality oils tell you exactly where the olives were grown and pressed. If the label doesn’t say exactly where the oil came from, then the producers don’t know either. A label should tell you the name of the producer, the town, and region. An “Estate” olive oil indicates a shorter time from harvest to press since it all happens right on the Estate.

For Italian oils, if a label says DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), the highest level of quality has been guaranteed.  DOP is a distinction awarded only to foods produced, processed and prepared using traditional methods from the defined geographical area in Italy in which the product originates. The specific region must be indicated on the label.

3) Type of olive

Like the origin of the olive oil, if an olive oil label does not tell you what type of olive is used to produce the oil, then it was probably made by a producer that receives olives on exchange from different sources, unconcerned of where and when it was harvested and/or pressed.  Make sure the label tells you the type of olive the oil is made from. The type of olives used can also give you an idea of how the oil will taste.

4) An expiration date that is no more than 2 ½ years after the harvest date

This ensures freshness and quality

5) Acidity, Peroxide, and Polyphenol content

These are 3 of the most important ways to gauge the freshness and quality of the oil. The lower the peroxide and acidity of an oil, the higher the anti-oxidant level (polyphenols) and the higher the quality and freshness.

Look for the following acidity, peroxide, and polyphenol contents when choosing an olive oil:

Acidity: .3% or below

Peroxide: Less than 10 meq02/kg

Polyphenols: 100-150 mg/ kg is normal and anything above 400 mg/kg is excellent

The Raro EVOO by Madonna, one of the highest quality olive oils, has a .15% acidity, 4.5 meq02/kg peroxide, and 435mg/kg polyphenol level

So now that I know what to look for when choosing a quality olive oil, what about taste?

Tasting and choosing an olive oil is similar to that of wine.   Like wine, the type of olive and origin of the oil will affect the flavor profile.  Also, like wine, olive oils can be mono-varietal or a blend.  Certain olive oils also pair better with certain foods and for certain uses.

The following are four common flavor profiles of olive oil:

1) Bitter/ Grass flavored olive oils are excellent for cooking. They can handle high heat and bring out the olive flavor in a dish.  Raro (made from Ravece and Rotandella olives), Tenuta Cocevola, (Coratina varietal), and Sitia .3 are all excellent choices.

2) Artichoke/Lime/ Tomato flavors such as that in the Caninese and Marino varietals, are perfect for paring with greens and salads., adding a citrus touch.  Glenn suggests the Shop Agora Italian EVOO and the organic Tonda Iblea Marino EVOO.

3) Banana in the flavor profile is representative of a nicely balanced olive oil.  It’s perfect as finishing oil.  Try Trampetti EVOO made from Moraiolo olives or the Shop Agora Greek

4) Butter qualities in an EVOO are ideal for bread dipping and baking.  Try the _____

Is there a good olive oil for blending?

Some olive oils are ideal for blending with other ingredients, such as for salad dressing or marinades.  For a good blending oil, try the Mannucci Droandi Chianti Classico, made from a blend of Moraiolo , Frantoio, and Leccino olives.

What’s that strong peppery finish in some olive oils?

The burning, peppery finish in an olive oil is indicative of high amounts of polyphenols, or anti-oxidants and indicates an earlier harvest.  Italian olive oil producers tend to harvest earlier, so their oils tend to have a strong peppery finish while Greek olive oil producers tend to harvest later, producing a warmer and smoother finish.

Now, a little bit about truffle oil…

Truffle oils can be made from either black truffles or white truffles.  Black truffles tend to have an earthier and more forward flavor while white truffles tend to be more elegant.  Both are great on pasta, pizza, popcorn, or for enhancing anything with mushrooms.

Truffle oil can either be all natural or infused with truffle essence

Truffle essence can get a bad rap but the truth is, a good truffle essence adds aroma and a stronger truffle flavor as well as a preservative quality to the oil, giving it a longer shelf life.  Truffle essence does not taste the same in all truffle oils. Some can be of poor quality, and if one tastes truffle oil from bad truffle essence, they may assume all truffle oils with essence are terrible.  In reality, a good essence derived from natural truffles can be a wonderful and preferred option.

All natural truffle oil uses only the truffles themselves to infuse the oil. This means more truffles to infuse flavor, creating a milder but more true to flavor oil. Because it lacks essence, it has a shorter shelf life and a higher price.  Because the flavor is subtler, more oil is needed for flavor.  This type of truffle oil is used in fine restaurants.

Thank you, Glenn Greenwood for our Olive Oil lesson!

Come in anytime and taste some of the finest Italian, Greek, and Spanish olive oils at the Shop Agora tasting table! We’d love to talk to you!

Article contributed by Jana Shih