05 Apr

Use olive oil grades as flavorful guides

By Gholam Rahman,

Question: What’s the difference between regular and extra-virgin olive oil? If you’re not a gourmet cook, do you really need the extra-virgin kind?

Answer: Extra-virgin olive oil is unique among oils in that it comes directly from ripe fruits of the olive tree. The fruits are milled and pressed by modern hydraulic machines to extract the juice. The oil is then separated from the water in the juice by centrifugal machines. If the expressed oil meets certain industry criteria, including acid content of less than 1 percent, it is given the status of extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO as Rachael Ray, the Food Network superstar, has named it.

In the old days extra-virgin oil also bore the inscription of “first press,” or “cold press,” but the Larousse Gastronomique, the food bible, says these terms are no longer relevant since all the oil can be extracted at the same time and temperature is now electronically controlled. Limited amounts of artisan oils are still made by hand. An oil’s main characteristic is its fine fruity flavor, like the bouquet of fine wines. And like a fine wine, it can be very expensive.

Color is not really a criterion of quality. The bouquet can vary from country to country, even from region to region.

Oils with higher than 1 percent acidity are given different grade names, such as virgin olive oil or pure olive oil. The higher the acidity and lower the flavor, the lower the grade the oil gets. The lower grade oils may be further processed to artificially modify acidity. For flavor, about 15 percent of extra-virgin is often added. A new variety called “light” is a blend of olive oils designed to make the blend “look” lighter in color. Its fat and calorie content, however, remain the same as any other oil’s — 100 percent fat and 9 calories per gram. Pure olive oil, which is the oil commonly available in most supermarkets, has the least flavor and is thus the least expensive.

As you would see, the main differences between extra virgin and pure olive oils are one of flavor and price. All categories of olive oils, with their high content of monounsaturates, are heart-healthy, as numerous studies of the Mediterranean diet are continuing to indicate.

So if you want to switch more and more to olive oil, use the least expensive for general cooking. Pure olive oil is more suited for cooking with a higher smoke point (410 degrees) than extra-virgin (around 375 degrees) and is more shelf stable as well.

Use the extra-virgin type for salad dressings, to brush on toasts, etc., or add a small dash at the end of the cooking where flavor counts. Prolonged cooking dissipates most of the flavors of extra-virgin oils.

We use a lot of olive oil, mostly extra-virgin, even for brief sautéing and marinating. (The monoglycerides in it allows it to penetrate much deeper into meat and carry with it some other flavors too.) We buy from one of the membership clubs in 3-liter bottles, and although the prices have gone up recently, it is still a great deal.

If you don’t want to use olive oil, choose canola, which has a similar nutritional profile, though it lacks the pleasing flavor.

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