12 Dec

Is there an olive in your oil?

Increasingly, people in the United States are finding out that cooking is a creative process, a string of conscious choices, instead of an exact science. Typically, we must hand pick our ingredients, testing them for freshness and flavor. We must choose which knives to cut them with and which pans to cook them in. We must determine how much heat to use and how long to leave the food exposed to that heat. We must gauge the level of seasoning the food needs.

Sure, recipes help, but the mere ability to follow recipes step by step does not make one an exceptional cook.

One choice that confronts cooks as regularly as any other is what type of fat to use. More and more, especially for lovers of foods from Italy and the rest of the northern Mediterranean, that choice is olive oil. While it cannot replace butter in many recipes, olive oil is revered for its fine flavors and is high in desirable monounsaturated fats, which can ward off high cholesterol.

However, for those who truly want to make fine food, the choice does not end there. Olive oil comes in many colors, varieties and degrees of quality. Some are intensely green and others a light amber. Some have bold flavors and a hint of bitterness, while others are smooth, creamy and fruity. And, many chefs maintain, the choice of the oil you use will directly influence the quality of the end product.

So, what does one look for?

Olive oils are graded according to the process by which the oil is extracted from the olives and by the percentage of free oleic acid it contains. The highest quality oils—”extra virgin,” “superfine virgin,” “fine virgin” and “virgin”—are extracted through “cold” mechanical pressure, without the use of heat, solvents or chemicals. Those of lower quality—which might simply be called “olive oil”—are extracted through additional pressings of the olives and the use of heat and solvents.

All “virgin” olive oils must be “cold-pressed.” The “extra virgin” designation is granted to oils that have less than 1 percent free oleic acid. Olives that are healthy when harvested are lower in oleic acid; they produce better oil. First-pressed “virgin” olive oils are darker and more flavorful than the lesser-quality oils that come from subsequent pressings.

Still, buying a bottle of oil that is expensive and labeled “extra virgin” does not automatically guarantee high quality. Like wine, the quality of olive oil can be linked to the site or region where the fruit is grown. Many of the finest olive oils are produced in the Tuscany region of Italy, although excellent oils are now also coming from other parts of the Mediterranean and California. Some of the best Tuscan oils are “estate grown,” produced from olives harvested only from the estate that bottles and sells the oil. One of my favorites is Laudemio from Marchesi de Frescobaldi, a famed Tuscan wine estate.

While strict Italians will advise always opting for “extra virgin” olive oil, cooks must consider that such robust oils might overpower a delicate salad or might not always be the perfect choice for sautéing.

Nonetheless, the difference in taste is clear. So, if you can’t afford to drop $30 on what might be one of the most important ingredients you’ll cook with, peruse the aisles of your favorite food store, choose a bottle and put it on your Christmas list. It might just be the perfect size for your stocking.

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