11 Apr

Are you an an olive oil virgin?

By Polly Campbell,
Photos by Michael E. Keating,

Here’s what you need to know to pick the best bottle for you

Have you noticed how the olive oil section is bulging at the seams at your local market?

On your weekly shopping trip, you can buy oil from around the world, in a wide range of prices, in some very attractive packages. Go to a gourmet store, and you’ll find more exotic choices. As more Americans get hip to the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, olive oil has become a must-have pantry ingredient. And, of course, there’s Rachael Ray, her “few turns around the pan” of “EVOO,” and her own EVOO brand that has made extra-virgin olive oil a trendy, necessary accessory among Food Network fans.

When something becomes trendy, confusion often results. Here are a few basics so you know what you’re looking for the next time you face the olive oil section.

EVOO 101
When you look more closely at all those bottles, you’ll see most are labeled “extra virgin.” Olive oil has been made for centuries by harvesting olives and squeezing out the oil mechanically. Oil created that way is “extra virgin.” The oil has low acidity and lots of complex flavor and aroma characteristics – it’s what all the fuss is about. Nicola Pietoso, the owner of Nicola’s in Over-the-Rhine, grew up in Tuscany.

He remembers walking home from school through an olive grove and dipping a piece of focaccia in newly pressed oil.

Some less-expensive oil, labeled simply “olive oil,” is extracted using heat or chemicals. It doesn’t have the complexity of extra-virgin oil. There is also a category in between called “virgin.” The categories are determined by production method, quality, and level of acidity, or free fatty acids.

But not in the United States.

We are one of the few large markets that does not use the categories set by the International Olive Oil Council, based in Madrid, Spain. Legally, in the United States, a manufacturer can classify any olive oil as “extra virgin.” Many of the oils labeled “extra virgin” are actually other kinds of oils with some true extra virgin added to bring down acidity and add flavor.

It may not matter just how virgin your oil is for most uses. It all has the same healthy monounsaturated fats. When cooking with olive oil, you don’t want to use an expensive artisan brand. Olive oil is an excellent cooking medium, but the delicate flavors and aromas of fine oil are dissipated when it’s heated. If you spend $40 on a half a liter of Mirisola oil from Italy, you don’t want to lose any of its flavor. Extra-virgin will begin to smoke at about 210 degrees Fahrenheit, while a regular “olive oil” will go up to 410. (Canola’s smoke point is 435; peanut is 450.)

For cooking, you want to select a moderately priced oil that still has plenty of olive characteristics and tastes good to you. Cristian Pietoso uses the commercial Italian oil Academia Barilla, priced at $12 for half a liter, for all the sautéing and cooking at Nicola’s. David Falk, chef/owner of Boca, uses Greek Divina olive oil at his restaurant for cooking, which is $40 for 3 liters. You can find decent brands at the supermarket for $12-$13 a liter, but true extra-virgin oil will cost more than that.

This is where a fine extra-virgin oil takes center stage. Many American cooks use olive oil only for dressing salads and sautéing. But it can be an important ingredient on its own. It’s often used this way in Italy and other areas with olive-rich cuisines. When you add oil to a finished dish, the quality is more important. “Here (at Nicola’s), we use one oil for cooking, another for finishing,” says Pietoso. He finishes almost every dish with a little olive oil. “There’s nothing like steak with a wonderful olive oil on it,” he says. “A good fruity olive oil on sea bass or cod is perfect. Or we eat it with a little garlic and red pepper on spaghetti.”

There is no regulation of the term “extra-virgin” in the United States, but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy some wonderful oils here. For instance the oils at Hyde Park Gourmet Food and Wine come from all over the globe and range in type, flavor and price. Owner Evelyn Ignatow says she is now buying mostly organic oils.

When you’re considering spending $30 or more on a half-liter of oil, look for “estate grown” oils, oils with a harvest date, with the origin of the olives clear on the bottle. Take every opportunity you can to taste oils to find your preference.

“I love the Sicilian oils,” says Ignatow. “They’re not too heavy, but flavorful.” Tuscan oils are famous for their round, peppery flavors. Some people like the more delicate, buttery French oils, or fruity oils from Spain.

“Many customers come in looking for a kind of oil they discovered on travels,” says Ignatow.

The Pietosos, because of their Tuscan heritage, love the famous and expensive Tuscan oils. But for finishing dishes at Nicola’s, Cristian uses Ollo, an olive oil from Australia. It comes in two varieties: a late-harvest mild and mellow, and a fresh and fruity, harvested earlier in the season. He matches the flavors to different dishes.

The enemies are light and heat. Don’t keep olive oil for more than a year and a half or so, as it will lose its flavor. So don’t buy more than you’ll use within a few weeks or months.

Good olive oil will mellow as time goes on. That oil Nicola Pietoso dipped his focaccia into would probably be too piquant for most American tastes. The best oils last longer than cheap ones, because they have lower acidity.

Olive oil is healthy, but, like most things, should be consumed in moderation. You want to replace other oils with it, use it instead of butter. The better the oil, the more flavor it adds to a dish and the less oil you will need.

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