Finding the Flavors in Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oils generally fall into four flavor categories, making it much easier to choose the right one for your recipes.
If you think all extra virgin olive oils are the same, or only meant for salads, think again. Savvy home cooks use olive oil in everything—literally from soups to nuts. Innovative restaurant chefs go farther: Todd English of Boston’s Olives infuses olive oil with rosemary and serves it warm over white bean and roasted garlic hummus.
Jerry Traunfeld of the Herb Farm in Seattle uses a fruity olive oil to flavor rosemary and sage crackers. At Berkeley’s Chez Panisse years ago, pastry chef Lindsey Shere made an olive oil cake; these days, at Manchu in New York City, Chef Teresa Barrenechea makes her chocolate mousse with olive oil.
Clearly, not all extra virgin olive oils are created equal. Like wines, they vary greatly in quality and flavor. Like wines, they reflect their regions of origin, harvest dates, microclimates, and types and blends of fruit. But precious few retailers can help guide decisions on what to buy, and olive oil labels offer only scant clues.
While researching my book, The Flavors of Olive Oil: A Tasting Guide and Cookbook (Simon & Schuster, 2002), I studied and tasted enough extra virgin olive oils to float an armada. I’d like to help you navigate this glorious mélange, with a special focus on extra virgin olive oil—the highest quality of olive oil. “Virgin” in this context means pure; for with olive oil, if not with blushing brides, there are levels of purity.
Extra virgin olive oil, as defined by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), is the unadulterated juice of the olive, extracted without heat or chemicals within 24 hours of harvest. It contain less than 1 percent oleic acid, an indicator of stability and freshness. Extra virgin olive oil contains the highest proportions of health-giving antioxidants of any grade of olive oil. If you don’t see “extra virgin” on the label, it’s not the highest grade.
The grades of olive oil below extra virgin must adhere to less stringent flavor profiles; they contain increasingly higher proportions of oleic acid and fewer beneficial antioxidants. Oils further down the scale are often chemically treated blends of higher grades. In descending order of quality they are virgin olive oil, refined olive oil, olive oil (also seen on American supermarket shelves as pure olive oil or light olive oil) and lampante and pomace oils.
All in Flavor
In order to take some of the guesswork out of choosing which extra virgin olive oil to use in any given recipe, I’ve classified olive oils into four distinct flavor categories. The first three are very similar to wines: “leafy green and grassy,” “fruity and fragrant” and “mild and delicate.” And although a wine may be peppery, it’s only olive oils that can be both “olivey and peppery.”
I devised these descriptors in part to provide a common language for the natural variations in olive oil flavor. Even more important, they provide the basis to make precise pairings of food and olive oil, just as we pair food and wine.
The general rule is very simple: combine like flavors. For example, a mild and delicately flavored dish like a salad of tender baby greens with new peas and shards of Parmesan cheese would be overwhelmed by an intensely flavored olive oil. Only a delicate and mild olive oil can dance lightly enough on the palate to complement and highlight the subtle flavors and textures of such a salad. A hearty fava bean soup, however, cries out for a generous glug of leafy green and grassy olive oil to create an even more silken texture and strong taste experience.
Fruity and fragrant olive oils have a rounder flavor and complement dishes such as full-flavored grilled vegetables, or a salad of blood oranges, black olives and greens. Olivey and peppery oils are best used as raw accents, drizzled carefully over cooked or raw foods—they are wonderful on grilled meats, toasted bread, or on salads of greens such as arugula or watercress.
Labels or hang tags on bottles may tell you something about the olive varieties or harvesting methods, but they won’t give you much flavor information. While you may know from experience that oils from Tuscany are often peppery, or that Arbequina olive oil from Spain tends to be mild, smooth and sweet, in the end the only way to know how an olive oil tastes is to taste it yourself.
Tasting olive oil is different from wine tasting primarily because you swallow olive oil. Swallowing is especially important with peppery olive oils—tasters need to experience the piquant sensations in the throat. Be warned: Some people characterize these oils by how many coughs they produce.
To taste olive oil, pour a tablespoon or two into a small glass and warm the glass with two hands: one underneath, and the other capping the top. When the oil has come to body temperature, lift the capping hand a little to sniff deeply. (Once you’ve tasted a rancid oil by mistake, you’ll never neglect this step.) Then take a good sip, swirling it around the mouth, curling the tip of your tongue up to touch your upper palate, and sucking air through both corners of the mouth. Taste again with the whole tongue, and then swallow.
As you might have guessed, it’s mostly the natural flavors of different varieties of olives that create these taste differences, along with the timing of harvest and the influence of climate. Traditionally, each region of the Mediterranean grows different varieties and harvests them at different points of maturity, creating olive oils that vary greatly from one region to another.
Olives harvested early in the season are green and tannic, and yield oils that are olivey and peppery or leafy green and grassy. Olives picked when fully ripe (purple or black) produce oils that are soft, delicate and mild, although some varieties of ripe-picked olives can also be intensely fruity and fragrant. The choice of when to harvest olives is cultural or even regional—in Italy, for example, Tuscans (known for their love of peppery oil) tend to harvest early, while Ligurians (who appreciate lush, silky and fruity oils) tend to harvest ripe.
Each olive-growing region cultivates different varieties, which, of course, have their own flavors. Every Mediterranean country produces olive oil, and each region within each country produces oils of different characters. Sometimes producers even create regionally mixed oils, such as the mild and delicate Hacienda Fuencubierta extra virgin olive oil from Spain, which mixes Arbequina, Picual and Hojiblanca olives. Other outstanding varieties grown in Spain include Manzanilla and Conicabra, which can be found blended in the leafy green and grassy Almazarra Luis Herrara oil from Murcia.
Olives Taste by Taste
Tuscan olive oils and California Tuscan-style olive oils tend to be olivey and peppery blends of several native Italian varieties such as Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo and/or Pendolino. This blend is the hallmark of California’s DaVero
Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil as well as Italy’s Badia a Coltibuono Albereto. Blends are created both for rich flavor profiles as well as for stability, since some varieties of olives may have outstanding flavor but a short shelf life, while others are less flavorful but more durable.
Californian olive oil producers are the new kids on the block, and with typical American brashness they’re designing new regionally mixed blends to create their own signature oils. Thus Californian oils may combine old Californian olive varieties like Mission olives with Italian, French and Spanish trees. One such example is Wente Vineyard’s Oro Fino, an organic oil that mixes French Luque olives with Manzanillo, Picholine, Ascolano, Mission and Sevillano olives to produce a fabulously complex and full-flavored estate-bottled oil.
In the Mediterranean, California, New Zealand and Australia, many olive oil producers are also winemakers, since much the same terrain and climate can produce good grapes and good olives. Also, since grapes and olives come to maturity at different times of the year, a mixed farm can be productive most of the year, and can spread the risk of natural disaster over two harvests rather than one, giving the farmer a better chance at success.
Once you’ve identified the olive oil flavor profile you prefer and made your purchase, take care in its storage. Since olive oil rapidly degrades in the presence of light, heat and air, the goal at home is to eliminate these elements. Keep the bottle sealed tightly and protected from light, either in a dark bottle or by wrapping a clear bottle with aluminum foil.
It should be kept cool, though it’s not a good idea to refrigerate oil you are using, since it coagulates in the cold and takes time to come back to room temperature for use. However, if you buy oil in bulk, keep some of it stored in a cold place (a wine cellar is perfect) and then keep a small refillable bottle at room temperature. Be sure to use up oil within a year of opening, or two years from harvest if not opened.
And when putting it to use, let loose your imagination. Extra virgin olive oils can be used in the conventional ways—for salads, and drizzled on grilled meats—and in unexpected ways, such as the Watermelon, Lime and Feta Cheese Parfait presented here. Go for it.