All Olive Oil is Not Created Equally
I’ve been contemplating writing this olive oil post for a while, and I knew that this wouldn’t be a quick, short read. I’ve become quite fascinated as I’ve learned more and more about olive oils in the last year. What I’ve found strangely interesting is the almost scandalous nature of some of the imported olive oils. I was stunned to learn that a recent 2010 study conducted by the UC Davis Olive Center in conjunction with the Australian Oils research Lab found more than 69% of imported olive oils don’t meet the standards of the USDA and the IOC (International Olive Council) for “Extra Virgin Olive Oils” (then what the heck have I been buying all this time?). I also found that this isn’t a recent phenomenon, as doctored olive oil has been reported as early as the 24th century BC. Olive oil has a long history of being adulterated throughout Europe. The financial incentive for this unethical practice is so great that the potential profits have been compared to the equally lucrative distribution of cocaine without the associated risks (like um jail, rival drug lords and pesky distribution channel interruptions).
High or Low Quality?
There are two roads to go down with olive oil. Go high quality (generally more expensive) or gravitate towards low quality (significantly cheaper). This goes for not just consumers but for suppliers as well.
Low end producers gravitate toward producing huge volumes of low quality olive oils. These tend to be more prevalent among large European Union suppliers from Italy, Portugal and Spain. Worse, these suppliers aren’t marketing these as lower quality economical olive oils but as the good stuff. This naturally undercuts ethical oil producers. If you find an EVOO “extra virgin olive oil” (at least that’s what the label says) to be much less expensive than the other olive oils on the shelf, consider that to be a major red flag. Producing a top quality Artisan olive oil takes considerable time and money so it is logical to expect that necessary production costs must be covered in order to generate even a reasonable profit.
Foodies in the US, Canada and Europe have been demonstrating a rapidly growing appetite for high quality olive oil. With significant technology improvements over the last 10-15 years some of the highest quality olive oils in history can now be produced. Olive oils have numerous flavor profiles just like apples and grapes do, and the flavor of top quality olive oils are now frequently compared to the flavor complexities normally associated with great wines. There are over 700 varieties of olives that can be made into oils. As American palates continue to become more sophisticated, there is an evolution taking place towards US produced olive oils. This movement is similar to what we’ve witnessed in US grown and produced artisan cheese, craft beer and wine. Many food connoisseurs don’t mind paying for a top quality product, but it is always about perceived value (and value is a very personal thing).
We know that many of our customers started out buying their spices at the local grocery store and this is often where early olive oil buyers get their first taste as well. The earliest Olive oil choices typically begin based on price or what the label looks like and as the consumer becomes more knowledgeable, they then migrate towards which country it came from. Many of the foreign governments actually subsidize their olive oil exporters which drives their sale price down. Don’t overlook the quality of US harvest and produced olive oil.
In this country, California has led the way with domestically grown olives. Olives were first planted in California in the 1700s on Catholic missions up and down the left coast. Historically, these olives became the canned variety known more for eating. Even today only 2% of the olive oil consumed in the US is grown in California while the majority is imported from Chile, Italy, Spain and Tunisia.
What to Look For
The first thing you want to look for on the label is that the oil has been cold pressed. This means that during the critical crushing process no heat was applied. Heat at this stage alters the olive’s delicate chemistry and causes flavor imperfections. The California Olive Oil Council standard calls for the oil to have been mechanically extracted from the olive without the aid of heat or chemicals. This method is considered the most hygienic.
Next you want to know how soon after harvesting was the olive pressed. The most diligent farmers and producers pick the olives from the tree and do not use over ripened olives that have fallen onto the ground. Ideally, olives should be pressed within 24 hours of harvest. In order to qualify as “Extra Virgin” olives must be picked properly and pressed quickly in an uncontaminated environment.
As olive oil novices learn more about great oils, they tend to gravitate toward either blends or varietals. Blends are several types of olives. Different types of olive trees may be planted together in the field where they are harvested and pressed together or an olive oil master can use his or hers vast knowledge and delicately mix several varieties together to create the desired flavor profile. European olive oils are frequently a blended oil and you must read the fine print on the label to see which olives were used.
Mono varietals or monocultivar olive oils are olive oils where only one type of olive is used. These types of oils are preferred by many olive oil lovers and some of the more common highest quality olives used are arbequina, arbossana and koroneiki.
What’s The Best Olive Oil?
So what EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) is the best? That is purely a personal opinion. Again, that’s like choosing your favorite wine. Olive Oil Sommeliers (yes they have those too) look at three primary attributes when determining quality olive oils – fruitiness, pungency and bitterness. Some of the most common flaws of lesser quality olive oils are poor quality flavors that are moldy, musty, flat or fermented.
Bitter provides an acrid flavor sensation on the tongue.
Fruity describes the characteristic flavor of green or fresh ripe olives. This spicy fruit taste tends to be pleasantly aromatic, floral and mild.
Pungent flavors provide a peppery sensation in the mouth and back of the throat.
As I mentioned, not only are there more than 700 types of olives but each has a signature flavor that much like spices, can vary from region to region with variances that also include soil type, climate and the weather. These flavors can even be different when picked from the same fields but from different harvest seasons. The leading olive growers have mastered the art of knowing the optimal time to harvest.
How long an olive grows and when it’s harvested and pressed will also affect the flavor of the oil. California olives are like chile peppers in that they typically start green and as they begin to ripen their color changes to yellowish green, then to red, then to purplish black and at full maturity a very black color. When immature green olives are harvested and pressed they produce a more robust flavor profile than the fully ripened black olives.
Another sign of a top grade olive oil? You’ll find a harvest date on the bottle (not just a best if used by date). Ideally you should choose an olive oil that has been harvested in the last year and you have to know your climate regions, as well as the olive type and country it originates from.
In the Northern hemisphere, green olives are collected from the end of September to around the middle of November. Blond olives are harvested from the middle of October to the end of November and black olives are picked from the middle of November to as late as early February. In Europe, harvesting is done in the winter, but the time varies from country to country, depending on the grower and the season. Olive oils from California are best if harvested and pressed from October to January.
When looking at different types of oils, look for those in dark glass and buy a size that you’ll use very quickly. And like when storing spices, choose a cool, dark location away from the heat of the stove as light, heat and time sitting around all quickly dissipate even a top quality oil.
While price is important when it comes to choosing a high quality olive oil, it shouldn’t be the only factor. You should try multiple oils to find the flavor that you prefer for different types of applications. While American palates are evolving, they tend to start out looking for olive oils that are more sweet and buttery while more experienced olive oil connoisseurs look for more pungency and bitterness.
You’ll also often find several different “types” of olive oil in a well stocked kitchen. Early harvest olive oils are more robust and do well with bolder foods like steak are garlic heavy dishes. Keep a milder late harvest variety on hand for lighter dishes like chicken, fish or vegetables.
The Perfect Pair
You now know more than you ever did about olive oil (or at least we hope you do), but the next question is - How do you use this olive oil? Cooking is obviously the first answer that comes to mind, but we have found that many customers and even owners of olive oil shops have found that pairing olive oil with spices is perfect for dipping with a piece of fresh crispy bread. This is an easy way to create a quick snack or an easy appetizer when unexpected guests stop by. Our dipping seasoning trio includes our Tuscany Bread Dipping Seasoning (a tried and true crowd favorite) and our two newer seasonings, Milan Bread Dipping Seasoning and Sicilian Bread Dipping Seasoning. Our Italian Herb Blend and Za'atar are also great for bread dipping.
Adding Seasoning Blends to Your Olive Oil Shop
How to Store Your Spices
How Much Spice to Use and When to Add
What is the Shelf Life of Spices and Herbs?