Extra Virgin Olive Oil 101
My team and I at Strippaggio are often asked by our customers to explain what “extra virgin” and “first cold pressed” olive oils mean. Simply put, extra virgin is a quality classification and first cold pressed is a milling process.
We revel at the chance to guide our customers in understanding those labels and in learning the difference between olive oil typically found in supermarkets and other retail outlets, and the premium-quality, authentic, extra virgin olive oil that we sell at Strippaggio.
Let me first start by saying that not all olive oil is created equal. A very high percentage of purported “extra virgin olive oil” sold in the U.S. is anything but extra virgin. It is oftentimes inferior, not 100% extra virgin or even 100% olive oil, and to make matters worse it is often rancid too. The problem is that most consumers are accustomed to poor quality olive oil and they don’t know how to distinguish the ‘good stuff’ from the bad. I assure you, once you smell and taste a real extra virgin olive oil, you will immediately understand the difference. As we like to say at Strippaggio, “you’ll be ruined and never go back to poor quality olive oil again.” It’s true!
So, what does extra virgin and first cold pressed really mean and why does a great quality extra virgin olive oil taste so darn good? Let me tell you.
For an olive oil to earn extra virgin status, it must meet rigorous sensory and chemical standards. The sensory standards are aroma, taste and mouth texture. Here are some of the questions we teach customers to ask themselves when they are at Strippaggio’s olive oil tasting bar. Does the oil smell like fresh olives? What flavors can you identify when you taste the oil? What textures did you feel in your mouth as you sipped the oil? We then teach our customers what to expect so they can identify great and not-so-good olive oils themselves.
Chemical standards involve the evaluation of olive oils to measure the fatty acid chains, the oxygen levels, the polyphenol levels and a host of other measurements. These chemical measurements can be taken when the olives are newly bottled and even later off-the-shelf to make sure this natural, fruit oil is still up to the standard listed on the bottle.
Yet even before sensory and chemical testings take place there are many important conditions that play significant roles in the outcome of a great olive oil. Some of these are variety of olive, growing conditions, harvesting and storage conditions.
Time of harvest plays a dramatic role in the outcome of olive oil quality and flavor. Depending on variety, olive fruit that is young and green can yield grassy and vibrantly bitter (bitter is a good thing) flavors to an olive oil. That same oil will have the distinct aroma of fresh olives. A more mature, slightly rosy-hued olive will yield a softer, milder flavored oil. The trick is not to harvest too late or the oil will not qualify as extra virgin even though it may still be milled using the first cold pressed process.
As with all agriculture, growing conditions have an enormous effect on olive oil quality. Conditions like amount of rainfall, pest infestations (the olive fly is a huge problem causing the fruit to rot), disease, and temperature impact the finished product. For example, too much rain at the time of harvest leaches the beneficial polyphenols from the fruit making for a less-vibrant oil.
Once the fruit is harvested it should be stored in bins that allow for ventilation. Just like any organic matter, if not allowed to breathe, olive fruit waiting to be milled will begin to overheat. Overheating starts the fermentation process which breaks down the fruit allowing it to rot and mold. It is a good rule of thumb for olive growers to remember, olive fruit should be milled within 24 hours of harvest and ideally within eight.
When the olive fruit begins its journey through the mill it faces hazards to freshness there too. The fruit must be well rinsed and most leaves and twigs removed. The milling equipment must be scrupulously cleaned, and the process temperature maintained inside the milling equipment must be kept relatively low in order to achieve a first cold pressing.
After milling, the oil storage conditions are now very important. If storage bins are too hot the newly extracted oil will quickly become rancid. Olive oil that is stored with too much fruit pulp in it risks fermentation disasters. The last resting home for oil that doesn’t survive the harvest, milling and storage is the refinery where it is cleaned, deodorized and even though it is edible, doesn’t maintain any of the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil.
The type of olive or olives used for a single-varietal or blended extra virgin olive oils plays a big part in the taste of the oil. There are several thousand olive varieties which grow around the world and several hundred in common commercial production use. Each has its own distinct flavor profile. Some are fruity while others are grassy and still others pungent, bitter and spicy. There is an olive varietal for every taste preference and certainly as a complement to any dish.
As you can see, extra virgin olive oil production is a blend of skill, art and science. Flavor profiles range from mild and buttery to nutty, grassy, robust and peppery. When paired with food, it is important to consider the intensity of the other ingredients in your recipe in order for the olive oil to complement the dish. For example, Mission olive oil, which tends to be mild and buttery, is great on shellfish in place of butter. It brings out the briny flavor of any crustacean. I also use Mission olive oil in sautéing. For vinaigrettes, depending upon the type of vinegar I use, I look for medium-intensity olive oils such as Manzanillo and Koroneiki since neither overpowers a well-balanced balsamic or wine vinegar. Tuscan varietals such as Leccino, Pendolino or Frantoio are great in pasta dishes or in vinaigrettes. The choices are almost limitless and it’s fun to experiment. Not unlike wine, incorporating an excellent extra virgin olive oil into your culinary adventures can have a dramatic impact on your final creation.
We look forward to taking you on an extra virgin olive oil tour upon your next visit to Strippaggio!
Many thanks to Mary Squires for her contributions to this post.
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