In addition to being good for your health, olive oils can please your palate… if you choose the right ones. Stores often stock dozens of different olive oils from a growing number of countries, and there are wide disparities in flavors, quality and health benefits that make it hard to choose from the many options. Here’s what you need to know…
WHY OIL GRADE MATTERS
The highest grade of olive oil is “extra-virgin.” These oils have less than 0.8% acidity, compared with higher percentages for lower grades of olive oil, which are called “virgin” or just olive oil.
Extra-virgin olive oils have no defects that detract from the aroma or flavor. The oil must be extracted from olives within 24 hours of harvest, and it is extracted solely by mechanical means—not extraction processes that involve heat or chemicals, which affect an oil’s flavor.
Conventional wisdom holds that it’s a waste to cook with extra-virgin olive oil. But while it’s true that heat dissipates some of the flavor and destroys some of the antioxidants that make extra-virgin olive oil special, plenty of flavor and health benefits remain. I recommend using extra-virgin varieties for all olive oil uses, though a lower-end extra-virgin olive oil is adequate for frying.
Warning: Don’t buy a “light” olive oil because you’re on a diet. Light oils are not any lower in calories than other olive oils—they’re just lower in flavor.
SELECTING OLIVE OILS
Be wary of bottles that say nothing more than “Bottled in Italy” or “Imported from Spain” to identify the origin. “Product of Italy,” for example, can mean that the olives were grown and the oil was extracted in Italy… or it can mean that the olives were grown and processed elsewhere and then the oil was bottled in Italy. Some higher-end oils will be labeled “estate bottled,” meaning that the olives were grown, processed and bottled on the same property.
Some bottles even note the variety or varieties of olives used, the specific region where the olives were grown and/or the flavor characteristics of the oil. Such details are clues that the producer takes pride in the product.
Don’t assume that high-priced oils are always better than cheaper ones. Some excellent extra-virgin olive oils don’t cost much more than lower-grade oils.
Example: Trader Joe’s sells a very nice Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil for about $7 per liter.
Store olive oil in a cool, dark place (preferably in a glass bottle with a dark tint or in a tin), and keep the cap tightly sealed. Consume olive oil within one year of opening the bottle and before the “use by” date (and within two years of the bottling date if this is provided) for best flavor. Take a sniff of the oil before using it. An odor of cucumber or sweet banana could indicate that it is past its prime. Rancid oil has a distinct off-putting smell.
Olive oils can be divided into four flavor categories…
Delicate and mild oils are subtle and ephemeral. They often are yellow in color and are appropriate for delicately flavored foods, such as lettuce, peas or mild cheese. Examples…
- Costa Dei Rosmarini Extra Virgin Olive Oil Santa Chiara is a fruity, sweet and mild Italian oil (click on “English Website”).
- A l’Olivier is a French oil with a nutty aroma and thick texture.
Fruity and fragrant oils provide a blend of luscious smells and tastes, with flavor notes that might suggest apples, pea pods or leafy green vegetables. They’re a good choice for pasta, mixed salads, fruit, dessert cheeses or with mild meats such as chicken breast and many varieties of fish. Examples…
- Olio delle Colline di Santa Cruz is a fruity, sweet California oil with notes of asparagus.
- Biolea Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is a fragrant, slightly herbal high-quality Greek olive oil.
Olive-y and peppery oils start with a luscious olive flavor and end with a pungent finish that catches the throat. This throat-catching quality is called pizzicante in Italy and is particularly associated with oils from Tuscany. Olive-y and peppery oils are wonderful for flavoring bread, dressing whole grains, as a vegetable dip, on roasted meats or in flavorful pasta sauces. Examples…
- Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil, a slightly bitter Italian oil with a nice throat burn, arguably is the best olive oil widely available in most US supermarkets.
- Napa Valley Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil is an elegant, mildly pungent estate-bottled California oil full of rich olive flavor.
Leafy green and grassy oils are very strong and often pungent, with herbal notes. They’re appropriate for bruschetta, on strong greens such as spinach or arugula, drizzled over bean soups or on pasta dressed only with oil and perhaps garlic and cheese. Examples…
- Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a pleasantly bitter Italian oil with a great aroma, and it’s often sold in supermarkets.
- Kirkland Signature Extra Virgin Toscano, sold at Costco stores, is a pungent Italian oil with a ripe olive flavor and a long, slow finish.
Olive oil has been linked to good cardiovascular health, weight control, reduced risk for diabetes and protection against certain types of cancer and stroke caused by blocked arteries. These health benefits stem from its high monounsaturated fat and antioxidant content. Extra-virgin olive oils have significantly more antioxidants than lower grades.
Helpful: Oils with particularly high levels of antioxidants have a peppery, throat-catching quality.
OLIVE OIL MAKES THE DISH!
Here are some favorite recipes that take advantage of the flavors of extra-virgin olive oil.
Yellowfin Tuna Poached in Olive Oil
- ¾-pound yellowfin tuna loin steak (approximately one-inch thick)
- 1-to-1½ cups extra-virgin olive oil (a fruity and fragrant oil is best)
- Lemon wedges
- Coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Rinse the tuna, pat dry and remove any attached skin. Heat a deep, wide saucepan or sauté pan that’s slightly larger than the fish over low heat, then add the oil. After two or three minutes, drop a shred of fish or crumb of bread into the oil. If it sizzles, the oil is ready. Place the fish in the oil (the oil should reach halfway up the sides of the fish) and poach for about four minutes. Keep the heat low enough so that the sizzle is just a low whisper—you want to poach, not fry. Use tongs to turn the fish, and poach the other side for two minutes (a little longer if you like your fish well-done). Remove the fish, and lay it on paper towels to drain, patting the top dry.
Cut the fish into serving portions, top with lemon wedges, and drizzle with more olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. (Serves two to three.)
Olive Oil and Rosemary Mashed Potatoes
- 1 thick sprig fresh rosemary
- 2 quarts salted water
- 2 pounds (6 to 8) russet or Yukon Gold potatoes
- ¼ cup skim or whole milk
- 3 Tbsp olive-y and peppery olive oil
- Coarse sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Add the rosemary sprig to the salted water in a large pot, and bring it to a boil while you peel and quarter the potatoes. Put the potato pieces into the boiling water, making sure they are covered with water. Bring potatoes back to a boil, and cook until soft, about 15 minutes. Heat the milk in a small saucepan, or microwave for 30 seconds. When the potatoes are cooked through, turn off the heat and drain them. Discard the rosemary. Return the potatoes to the dry-but-still-hot pot. Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes to a paste.
Add the olive oil and milk, beating with a wooden spoon as you do so. Taste, and add salt and pepper. Serve hot. (Serves four to six.)
For more Mediterranean recipes, visit Your Guide to the Mediterranean Diet.