Olive Oil 101
How to buy, how to taste, and how to enjoy
By Sean RiveraPosted Sep 5, 2012
Continuing my quest to understand the foods I prepare, I have put together the findings of my latest investigation of olive oil. It became quite a daunting task, as there are volumes and volumes of information available. I’ve done my best to break down the history, varieties, and grade definitions along with the best ways to buy it, store it, and cook it.
Olive oil has an abundance of health benefits. It is rich in anti-oxidants, lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol, lowers the risk of heart disease, lowers blood sugar, improves skin health, and improves the body’s ability to heal itself. It can be used for cooking, baking, fuel, soap, skin treatment, and many other things.
I like to sauté with it, make dressings, or eat it with some hearty bread. I learned a lot about olive oil while traveling and cooking through Europe (mainly Spain and Italy) in my early 20s. I had been accustomed to this product in my family’s kitchen, but the more I learned, the more I grew to appreciate it. With its simple, deep flavor, it can revolutionize a straightforward dish and transform it into something sublime.
I grew up using extra virgin olive oil, before the “EVOO” generation. Don’t get me wrong, I get it, and Rachel Ray doesn’t bother me. I just cringe every time I hear it. I prefer to call it what it is.
The olive tree
Olive oil was supposedly cultivated for consumption as far back as 8th millennium BC from a wild olive tree strain from Greece. The tree was domesticated (so to speak) sometime between the 6th and 3rd millennia BC.
The tree has since been cultivated into dozens of different varieties and strains. Within the Egyptian Dynasty, importing olive oil from the Greek isles and other Mediterranean cultures became an important form of commerce and trade. Remnants of olive oil have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs. The Minoan civilization also used olive oil to strengthen their economy and it represented a status of wealth.
The Romans then expanded cultivation all along the Mediterranean – from the Iberian to the Sinai Peninsula. By the 7th century BC, it had reached Southern Gaul and Celtic tribes.
While olive oil is most often associated with Italy, Spain is actually its main producer, providing 30 percent of the world’s supply. While Italy is a close second in production, the country actually imports and consumes more olive oil than it exports! Portugal makes 5 percent of the world’s of olive oil. Recently, California has also begun producing fine quality olive oil. While all these facts are impressive, what does it all mean for the consumer?
What is olive oil?
Olive oil, in its most basic form, is the freshly pressed juice of olives. It can then be turned into different varieties.
Freshness is important when selecting olive oil. You want to find oil in a dark bottle, as light can impact the quality of the oil once it has been pressed and decanted.
When you go into a store to buy olive oil, read the labels. The most expensive bottles with the fancy labels are not always going to give you the best flavor, and they may not be right for your dish.
There is no rating system to determine which olive oil is the best, but you can educate yourself on the different varieties to help determine which one to buy. Since any olive oil is good for you, use it liberally and move on to the next bottle.
Extra virgin is the highest quality, healthiest (contains the most antioxidants), and most flavorful. It is considered “extra virgin” because it is from the first pressing of the olives. “Virgin” olive oil can be slightly more acidic than “extra virgin.”
Generally, I will only use extra virgin olive oil. The most sought-after varieties come from Spain, Italy, or Portugal, and I find that most types on the standard grocery store shelves come from Italy.
My mother-in-law travels to Spain annually and my only request is that she return with saffron (saving that for a future article) and Spanish extra virgin olive oil.
“Pure” olive oil and olive oil both come from a blend of refined and virgin oil production. They can be more acidic than the “extra virgin” and “virgin” bottles. Refined oil comes from a production method that filters lower quality oil with a charcoal or other chemicals. Pure olive oil can complement dishes that are braised or cooked in the low-slow way.
There is no real need to use extra virgin or virgin when you are cooking for a long time. The heat dissolves all the intense flavors and reduces them to pure olive oil anyway. It’s always handy to have both kinds in your pantry, depending on what you are going to be cooking and how.
Pomace is the leftovers from the initial pressing of the virgin or pure oils. The ground olive flesh and pit pieces are still good stuff. Anyone that understands the Cajun and Creole philosophy of cooking understands why pomace from olive oil production should be saved and re-used. The pomace is once again processed and treated with solvents or other physical methods to extract as much oil as possible and to be able to be used for consumption. Generally I don’t use this type for any cooking, but I’m not trying to knock it.
Now, let’s cook!
There is truly nothing more delectable than a warm olive that is drenched in flavored olive oil and served with crusty bread (such as Leidenheimer French bread) and a mild-yet-savory cheese (such as Manchego or Fontina). I also love this alongside pickled carrot sticks. It’s an ideal starter that can easily transform into a meal. And, if you serve this with a fine glass of wine, then you can go ahead and call it quits for the day. You will be satiated!
3 cups mixed, brined olives
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tb. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tb. fresh-squeezed orange juice
2 large strips of lemon zest
2 large strips of orange zest
2 large garlic cloves smashed and mashed with salt
3 tb. fresh minced rosemary
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
½ tsp. fennel seeds
Put the olive oil, juices, zests, garlic, and herbs in a small saucepan over low heat and let the oil start to get warm. Add the olives and bring up to a low heat for about 5 minutes. Take the pot off the heat and let it sit for another 5 to 10 minutes. Pour your wine, plate the bread, cheese, and pickled carrot sticks. Put the olives into a serving dish and enjoy.