When I was growing up, if you wanted to buy a bottle of olive oil – or “salad oil,” as they often called it in those days – you’d better live in a big city with a thriving Italian neighborhood because otherwise you weren’t going to find any in your local supermarket. And there was no Internet back then, kiddies.
Nowadays, the places I shop have so many shapes, sizes, and varieties of olive oil that they practically fall off the shelves. One of my favorite markets even has an olive oil tasting bar set up where you can sample the various wares before you make a purchase.
All because a few years ago somebody let slip the secret that Mediterranean cultures have known for centuries: olive oil is good for you.
Now, I’m gonna do us all a favor and not do a twenty page in depth study on olive oil, although I easily could. I could go on and on about the olive, or olea europaea, in its Italian, Spanish, Tunisian, or Greek varieties. You can also find them in Israel, Palestine, South Africa, Peru, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and good old California, USA.
So let’s just do a quick, down-and-dirty guide to supermarket olive oil, okay?
First things first: how do you choose a good quality olive oil?
In my totally biased opinion, the best olive oil comes from Italy. Contrary to popular thought, Italy is not the world’s largest producer of olive oil. Spain is. Italy’s production is actually fairly modest, but it has the distinction of being the world’s largest exporter of olive oil. Now, I’ve been writing a lot about authentic Italian food products lately and how consumers can identify them. There are no fewer than forty varieties of olive oil that are produced in Italy and have been afforded PDO (or DOP if you’re using the Italian translation) protection.
You won’t find many of these on your average American supermarket shelf. Mostly because they’re really expensive. Instead, you’re going to see one of two labels: “Product of Italy” or “Packed in Italy.” The former means the oil was bottled in Italy using exclusively Italian olives. Sometimes you’ll find an IGP seal on some of these bottles.
The latter label means that the oil is bottled in Italy but may be a blend of olives from other regions. Italy buys lots and lots of Spanish olive oil and blends it with its own oil as well as with some from Greece, Turkey, and other areas, producing a nice standard product, the taste of which varies very little from year to year. From a quality standpoint, this cheaper blended product is often preferred on the world market over the more expensive pure oils produced exclusively in Italy. (A little tip: even if the front label says “Italy” on it, check the back label, where you’ll usually find the actual country of origin printed in really small type.)
The next big question for most consumers is “what’s with all the ‘virgin’ and ‘extra-virgin’ and ‘first cold-pressed’ and all that stuff?”
The “virgin-ness” of olive oil is determined by the processing. Any version of “virgin” means that the olives have been hand or mechanically picked and processed within a day of harvest through means that are completely natural. No chemicals or applications of heat. You wash ’em, crush ’em or spin ’em, and filter ’em – and that’s it. The olives are either pressed to a paste through special mats by big stone presses or spun in a centrifuge. The resultant oil is then filtered to remove impurities. This process is referred to as the first cold-pressing, a rather misleading phrase since there is no such thing as a second cold pressing.
Here, again, I could go into pages of detail about labeling regulations and adulteration problems and fraudulent production and distribution practices, but I’ll try instead to stick to the point of discussing what you’re likely to see on common grocery store shelves.
There are several “virgin” categories to contend with: extra-virgin, fine virgin, and ordinary virgin. All are reflections of the finished product’s organoleptic properties, a designation of flavor, color, and bouquet as defined by the International Olive Oil Council in Madrid.
(By the way, the United States does not subscribe to the codes and standards established by the IOOC, opting instead for its own outdated and imprecise USDA regulations adopted back in 1948 before the Council was formed. Although some California producers have urged the USDA to adopt IOCC standards, this has not yet occurred, so quality in US markets remains somewhat inconsistent.)
The cold pressing of olives results in a naturally low acid oil. Extra-virgin oil can have an acidity level of no more than 0.8% and must rate at least a 6.5 on a ten point organoleptic scale. Extra-virgin oil has a rich, fruity flavor and a color that ranges from a greenish-gold to a bright green. This is the stuff you want to use for applications where taste is important.
Fine virgin olive oil is also cold-pressed. It has an organoleptic rating of 5.5 or more and an acidity of 1.5 percent or less. Ordinary virgin, or just plain “virgin” olive oil, only has an organoleptic rating of 3.5 or more and acidity of 3.3 percent or less, but it is still capable of maintaining acceptable levels of purity and quality. You don’t see much of either of these grades in regular grocery stores.
You will see a lot of “pure” olive oil on store shelves. This is the next grade down from the “virgin” oil category. It is a refined oil produced by running low quality virgin oil through charcoal and other chemicals and filters. Then a little extra-virgin oil, usually about 5%, is added in to make the product taste like olive oil. Its high smoke point and dull flavor make it okay for use in frying and sauteing, but you really shouldn’t use it for sauces or salads or any finished dish that you want to have a nice, rich olive oil taste.
Time out for debate: Many, many cooks keep both extra-virgin and pure olive oils on hand. The common practice is to cook with the latter and finish with the former. Olive oil has a relatively high smoke point to begin with, at least when compared to butter, lard, or vegetable shortening. (The smoke point refers to the temperature at which a cooking fat or oil begins to break down.) The more refined the olive oil, the higher the smoke point becomes. So pure olive oil does lend itself slightly more to frying than extra-virgin. The actual smoke point varies depending upon who you ask, but with a consensus figure of around 400 °, you’re already looking at higher temperatures than are usually employed in frying foods, so smoke point is rather a moot point, isn’t it? Mario Batali, for one, swears by using extra-virgin oil for all applications from frying to finishing. Others demur, citing the cost factor. Why use cups and quarts of the good stuff when the cheaper stuff works just as well? But, the devil’s advocate position allows that stocking two kinds of oil is equally expensive. Take your pick.
Anything labeled “light” olive oil is generally a waste of money. It’s a refined oil from which all but the merest hint of flavor has been removed. Because most Americans believe that adding the word “light” to anything makes it healthier, they buy up gallons of “light” olive oil for what they suppose to be its greater health benefits. I mean, it says “light,” right? Sorry, folks, but the only thing “light” olive oil is light on is taste. Seriously. I’m not being subjective. That’s exactly what “light” olive oil is supposed to be; a lightly flavored alternative to real olive oil designed for people who don’t want the full flavor of olive oil in their cooking. As far as calories and fat content are concerned, “light” oil is no “lighter” than any other.
Don’t believe me? Check the nutrition labels on a couple of national brands. A tablespoon of extra-virgin contains 120 calories, all of them from fat. There are 14 grams of fat, 10 of them monounsaturated, 2 of them polyunsaturated, and 2 of them saturated. No trans fat, cholesterol, or sodium. The stats on the bottle labeled “pure” olive oil are identical. And now, drum roll, please, the data on “light” olive oil……is absolutely the same! So if you are buying “light” olive oil because you think it’s better for you, think again.
(Just in case you are curious, the breakdown on canola oil is nearly the same; 120 calories, 14 grams broken down as 9:4:1. Vegetable oil has the same calorie content and the same fat grams, distributed in a ratio of 3:8:2. The blended stuff – same calories and fat, 7:5:1.)
I once saw some pomace oil in a natural foods store and I don’t know why. Pomace is the lowest quality olive oil product that is still edible. That’s why it’s labeled as “pomace;” it’s so inferior that it can’t legally be called “olive oil.” Pomace is what you have left after you’ve pressed everything good out of the olive. It’s essentially the husk of the olive that has been chemically refined to squeeze out the last vestiges of oil. You don’t usually see it in regular grocery stores – I still don’t know why a “natural” food store would carry it. But some really cheap restaurants have been known to use it for frying.
The bottom rung on the ladder is reserved for lampante oil, which is non-edible and is used mainly for industrial purposes. The word “lampante” comes from olive oil’s ancient use as a fuel in oil-burning lamps. I’ve never actually seen it in a retail store of any kind, but it is an oil made from olives.
The bottom line from my point of view is to go with Mario Batali and just use one kind of oil for everything. Simplicity is the soul of Italian cooking, after all. That said, if simplicity is the soul, then quality is the body, so buy the best extra-virgin oil you can find and afford. Check the labels for points of origin, but more importantly, let your tastebuds be your guide. If you can find a store like Whole Foods that lets you sample the various oils available for purchase, by all means taste and compare until you find an oil you absolutely love, then buy it and use it in all your recipes – sauces, marinades, dressings, toppings, and anything else you’d use oil for. Stay away from “light” olive oil. If you want to change up the flavor profile, blend extra-virgin oil with a little canola oil or with some butter.
Regardless of what kind you get, olive oil should always be stored in cool, dark places in airtight bottles. The optimum temperature for storing olive oil is right around 60 ° , but average room temperature is okay. You can refrigerate it, but don’t. One particularly rough winter when my central heat was on the fritz, my kitchen temperature dipped to around 40 ° and my olive oil congealed right on my counter top! But when things warmed up, it was just fine. But there’s really no point in cold storage. Olive oil will eventually degrade and go rancid over time. Not in my kitchen, of course, where a bottle seldom lasts more than a couple of months, but time, temperature, light, and air are the enemies of most food products, olive oil included.
Homer referred to olive oil as “liquid gold.” Its ceremonial and culinary uses date back to the beginnings of recorded history. Isn’t it time to include some in your pantry?