Olive Oil 101

There is Much to Know About This Essential Ingredient

Sources:  On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee; Olive Oil From Spain.com

Olive Oil 101

There is Much to Know About This Essential Ingredient

Sources:  On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee; Olive Oil From Spain.com

Why is olive oil so popular?

First, olive oil is a healthy fat, meaning that while it is high in calories, it's also high in monounsaturated fat.  Studies say that a diet high in these fats is linked to a reduction in the risk of heart disease.  Plus olive oil is full of antioxidants, also a good thing.

Second, olive oil is versatile for cooking and it can be delicious.  It is a good choice for sautéing, although not for deep frying because of its smoking point (see below).  And it has flavor which means it adds taste to salad dressings, can be drizzled on a bowl of soup or a platter of fresh mozzarella, or used to finish cooked or raw vegetables.

Where does the best olive oil come from?

Best?  That's hard to say.  Most (about 80 percent) comes from the Mediterranean region -- especially Italy, Greece and Spain -- but very good olive oil is also produced in France and California.  Spain claims the position as the largest producer but every country has local producers who make superior, artisanal oils.

As with wine, getting acquainted with great olive oil requires some experimenting and tasting.  Read the label to confirm the origins and character of the oil.  Get to know your favorite producers.  Taste (and smell) different kinds of oils so you can have your favorites, choosing between the mellow light gold oils of Sicily, the green and peppery oils of Tuscany, the bold oils of Catelonia in northern Spain, or the subtle oils of Provence.  You may find that there will be one oil you'll love for dipping bread, another to drizzle in minestrone, and still another to sauté tilapia filets.  But you'll have to taste and choose.

How do I know which to try?

First, study the label to see where the oil is from.  I look for a bottle that tells me that the oil was produced and bottled in its country of origin.  This is important because some oils will be harvested in one country and then shipped in huge containers to another country where it's processed and bottled.  "Imported from Italy" doesn't really you tell you the whole story so read the label carefully.

As with most foods, you get the best quality when the folks who grow it and produce it also bottle and ship it.  Their name is on the bottle and they care what you experience when you buy, cook, and eat it.  So seek out this kind of oil.

Second, look for any declarations of quality.  An important one is when a bottle says the oil was "cold pressed."  This means no heat was used, a good thing since heat can affect the oil's chemistry and taste.  Some better producers will also show proof of origin on a label, such as DOP or DOC in some parts of Italy (Denominazione di Origine Protetta or Denominazione di Origine Controllata) or the DO (Denominación de Origen) in Spain.  But an olive oil without such labeling can be excellent so don't use these as your only criteria.

What's the difference between virgin olive oil and extra virgin olive oil?

Extra virgin olive oil is made from the first pressing of the olives and has less than 0.8% acidity, one test of superior flavor.  It also means no chemicals were used to extract the oil, only physical pressure put on the just-harvested olives.  The first cold pressing is generally considered the best for flavor and if an olive oil was produced that way, you can be sure it will say so on the bottle.

Virgin olive oil is the second pressing and usually cannot have more than 2% acidity, although standards for this can vary from country to country.

Sometimes using virgin (not extra virgin) is a better choice for cooking.  That's because virgin olive oil has a higher smoking point, the temperature at which fats begin to decompose (and ruin whatever you're cooking).  Extra virgin's is 375º F while virgin olive oil's is 410º F, making virgin oil better for cooking at higher temperatures.   So if you want to use olive oil for frying, keep a bottle of virgin on hand and save the extra virgin -- which is also more expensive -- for salads and other cooking.

In my opinion you should never buy and cook with an oil labeled simply "olive oil," meaning a grade below virgin.  By the time the olives get to their third or fourth pressing, there's a good chance heat and chemicals are being used to extract the oil and manipulate the flavor and who wants to eat that.

Should I refrigerate a bottle of olive oil after I've opened it?

No.  But olive oil is vulnerable to its environment and once a bottle is opened, the air can affect its flavor.  Experts say to store olive oil in a cool place -- not in the refrigerator but neither on a shelf over the stove.  Even better, only buy as much olive oil as you'll use in a few weeks and that way, it will always have great flavor.

How many calories in olive oil?

120 calories per tablespoon.  If an oil is labeled "light olive oil" this refers only to the color and not the calories.  All olive oils have the same calories.

Sometimes during cold weather olive oil turns cloudy, especially during cold weather.  Does this mean the oil has gone bad?

No.  If you're in a market on a cold winter day and you can see through the glass bottles that the olive oil has become cloudy, all this means is that the oil is responding to the temperature.  Once the oil is back to a less chilled environment, this cloudiness will disappear and the oil will not be affected.  Go ahead and buy that bottle and after an hour or two on your kitchen counter, it will look totally normal.

Why does Rachel Ray insist on calling olive oil EVOO?

Some things in life are a mystery.  Others are simply annoying. 

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