17 Jan

Choose the Right Olive Oil for the Job

Characteristics vary with different blends and methods of preparation, giving a variety of flavors and colors.

By Marlene Parrish,

Extra-virgin olive oils can be confusing and good oil isn’t cheap, and instead of finishing a bottle at a sitting as you would a bottle of wine, a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil might stay in the kitchen for weeks, even months. So how is a person supposed to know what to buy, how it tastes and how best to use it?

Searching for the answer led us to olive oil expert Jeff Robbins, owner of Embarcadero Inc., an importer and distributor of Spanish olive oils. Robbins might be a savvy businessman, but first and foremost he’s a teacher, and an entertaining and opinionated one to boot. Just the guy we needed.

But before discussing the flavor nuances of various oils, you need to understand how they are graded, according to Robbins.

Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest class of olive oils. These oils have what is described as perfect taste and aroma. The olives are pressed shortly after they are harvested, and their oils never come into contact with chemicals or heat. They do not undergo any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and perhaps filtration. This yields oils with a wide range of flavors, colors and characteristics, all of which have less than 0.8 percent free oleic acid as specified by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC).

Virgin olive oils have higher acid levels, from 1.5 percent to 2 percent, and compromised flavor characteristics. This makes them good choices for baking and frying.

Olive oil (with no adjectives) is a blend of chemically refined oil combined with a small amount of extra-virgin oil. These oils with very little flavor are sometimes labeled “light.”

It’s a myth that light and extra-light olive oil are less “fattening” than better-quality and higher-priced extra-virgin olive oil, according to Robbins. All olive oils have 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.

It’s also a myth that Italy makes the only truly premium olive oils in the world, said Robbins.

How long can I keep olive oil?

Not as long as you might think. The most important fact you will learn from a container of olive oil is the date of harvest. The life of an extra-virgin olive oil is two years, at most.

“The difference between olive oil and wine is the inverse relationship to time,” Robbins said. “Wines mature and open with time, whereas olive oils fade with time.”

Most olive harvests take place from November through January in the Mediterranean region. Then the oil has to rest before being bottled and shipped. The life of an extra-virgin olive oil is two years, at most.

After resting, bottling and shipping, olive oils won’t reach customers in the United States until they are about six months old. They should be used within 12 to 18 months. If a label doesn’t have a date of harvest, it might have a “use by” date.

Where and how olive oil is stored affect quality. Store olive oil in a cool, dark place, for instance, in a cool pantry or dark part of the kitchen. If the oil is in a clear, glass bottle, wrap the bottle in aluminum foil. If you want to buy oil in bulk, buy a large tin that you keep in a cool place, and decant some into a dark wine bottle with a pouring spout for daily use in the kitchen. As a rule of thumb, experts advise against refrigeration or freezing.

A well-stocked home kitchen will stock at least three kinds of olive oil: one for cooking, one for salads and one for finishing, according to Robbins.

“If you can afford to have only one, go for a good all-purpose olive oil.”

“People often ask me which country has the best olive oils,” Robbins said. “I ask them, ‘First, tell me which country has the most beautiful women? Which country has the most intelligent people?’ Taste is subjective, and good olive oils come from all over the world. There is no one best.”

What to Look For
You won’t find all of these elements on any given label, but here are facts to look for:

Extra-virgin olive oil.
First cold-press.
Olive variety or a blend.
Country of origin.
Region of the country.
Estate-bottled or not.
Use-by date.
How dark the bottle is. Or if it’s a clear bottle, a good gold to green spectrum.

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