On a recent trip to the Fancy Food Show in New York City, I learned that food manufacturing is a serious and complex business. The food manufacturers in this country and all over the world come to showcase their products at this particular show. The best of the best products are tasted by many specialty food buyers, retailers, restaurateurs, and food brokers, and their palates and preferences determine your range of selections at the grocery store. I also learned that tasting olive oil is a bit like tasting a fine wine. Yes, I am serious. An Italian exhibitor of fine Italian olive oils came by and gave me a lesson in tasting olive oil, which I would like to share with you. We have so many choices when we walk into our local grocer, and today I am going to make it a little easier for you to choose great olive oil!
Picking a good extra-virgin olive oil is simple: just try out a few and choose the one that you like best. If you want to pick among olive oils like the Italians do, however, here are some tasting tips. First of all, you should be aware that there are three distinct categories of extra-virgin olive oil, and each of these is best suited to specific dishes and preparations:
Mild – The light, buttery, sweet taste of these oils pairs perfectly with raw meats and Carpaccio; broiled and grilled fish; raw, cooked or steamed vegetables; soups, and pasta sauces. It’s also good with cheeses and is especially good in dishes for children.
Fruity – These oils have a slightly stronger and fruitier flavor that complements grilled meats, pastas, or rice in relatively mild sauces, cooked vegetables, and bruschetta. It pairs nicely with garlic sauces and mild cheeses as well.
Fruity-Spicy – The aggressive taste of these oils is ideal for accompanying rustic, traditional dishes like panzanella, a Tuscan-bread and tomato salad; ribollita, the Tuscan vegetable soup; and pasta e fagioli, or pasta with beans.
A guide to tasting and judging different olive oils
- Pour no more than 15 ml into a disposable cup, and cover it with a small plate or a piece of paper until you are ready to taste.
- Hold the cup in your hands to warm it up and to bring out the volatile scents of the oil, about one or two minutes. Look at the color.
- Exhale, then uncover the oil and inhale the scent. Cover the cup again, then repeat.
- Wet your lower lip with a bit of the oil, and then assess it with your tongue.
- Take a small sip. Roll the oil around in your mouth to determine its category–mild, fruity, or fruityspicy. This can be determined from the intensity of the spiciness on the sides of your tongue. Then, determine its texture and flavor.
- Taste each oil twice, but between tasting you should drink some sparkling mineral water or eat a slice of apple or a piece of bread to cleanse the palate. (Make sure to sip water or taste an apple or bread between tasting of different oils as well.)
- Decide if you like it or not!
What Defines Filtered or Unfiltered Olive Oil?
The terms “unfiltered” and “filtered” can apply to any type of olive oil, extravirgin or otherwise. Whether you prefer filtered or unfiltered is an entirely personal choice, since filtering actually does not affect the taste of the oil, nor is it an indicator of the oil’s quality. You should be able to tell the difference just from looking at the bottle. Unfiltered oil is more opaque because it still contains tiny suspended particles of the fruit. They will sink to the bottom with time, creating some sediment. Filtering is performed by passing the oil through a thick layer of cotton wool, which traps the small particles of fruit, leaving a clearer liquid.
Virgin Versus Extra-Virgin, What Should You Choose?
Virgin olive oil denotes oil obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical processes or other means that cause no alteration or deterioration through heat or chemical interaction. Therefore, the oil must not have been subjected to any treatment other than that of washing, centrifugation, and filtration. The best oils, those called “extravirgin,” are cold-pressed. Cold pressing is a chemical-free process that involves only pressure, which produces a natural level of low acidity.
Extra-virgin olive oil is virgin olive oil that has a minimum organoleptic rating of 6.5 out of 10 and low acidity. It is the oil of the highest quality and boasts a perfect, fruity taste, while its color can range from crystalline champagne to greenish-golden or bright green. Extra-virgin olive oil can be used in endless ways in the kitchen, and in Italy it has been a traditional ingredient in everything from antipasti to desserts. It is best used raw in salads, in order to enjoy its real flavor. Because of the time-consuming process required to manufacture extravirgin oil, and its limited production volume, true extra-virgin olive oils are expensive. Thus, any inexpensive olive oil labeled “extravirgin” is probably not authentic.
Preserving and Storing Olive Oil
All oils, especially extra-virgin olive oils and other unrefined oils, are best stored away from heat and light. Extra-virgin olive oil is at its best when it is just pressed because this is when its character and flavor profile are most distinct, and the oil’s taste is most intense. All olive oils will inevitably become stale and rancid over time, but the process can take up to three years. Fruity-spicy olive oil stays good the longest. At home, to preserve the freshness of your precious bottle of extra-virgin olive oil for as long as possible, store it in a cool, dark spot–ideally, a cabinet far from the stove.
Olive oil can be refrigerated but it solidifies, so it should be taken out a few minutes to return to room temperature before use. Tinted glass, porcelain, or stainless steel are the best materials for storing oil, which should never be stored in plastic or in reactive metals.