Olive oil has been around for a long time in the Mediterranean region. Archaeologists say that it was produced as early as 4,000 BC and has been used for numerous purposes throughout history, including fuel, cosmetics, religious ceremonies, and even birth control! Today, olive oil has gotten a lot of attention for its use in cuisine. The focus on cuisine has spurred a sophisticated craft and a competitive business.
We’ve enjoyed visiting family growers through Niteo Tours and have asked a lot of questions along the way. The full answers can be long, but we thought a VERY brief overview of some of the information we’ve gathered from our experiences would be a great place to start. What questions would you ask an olive oil producer?
OLIVE OIL FAQs
What creates the variety of flavors in olive oil?
Flavor profiles of olive oils are broad and depend on two primary factors: the environment where they are grown, and how they are produced. Environmental factors that impact flavor include altitude, soil, weather and the tree itself. Processing choices affect the acidity levels and quality.
What’s with all of the different colors?
During the stages of maturity, olive fruit changes color from green to dark purple, and then to black. Some people believe that green oil is an indication that the oil is fresher and more desirable, but don’t base your olive oil choice on color alone – smell and taste are the only true indicators of the oil’s quality. And, while professionals say the very best olive oils are bitter, fruity and pungent (with a peppery bite in the back of the throat), when you are buying for yourself, taste is always a matter of personal preference.
What’s the difference between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil?
Regular olive oil is a blend of cold-pressed and processed oils that results in a higher acidity and a more neutral flavor. It is a better option for baking and cooking (EVOO, extra virgin olive oil, will smoke and burn at a lower temperature).
EVOO is mostly used in dishes that don’t require that the oil be heated – like salad dressing or alongside/in foods eaten cold. It has the highest designation of quality because it is free from chemicals and never heated during processing.
What does “cold pressed” mean?
Olive oil producers will often heat olives to extract a greater quantity of oil from the olives. BUT, this heat processing significantly compromises the integrity of the aroma and flavor. Cold pressed oil has been extracted without the use of heat or chemicals and is more desirable.
How is olive oil produced?
There are five basic steps in transforming olives to olive oil:
- Olives are picked from the trees in harvest season (this starts in September and goes until November).
- The olives are separated from the sticks and leaves and then washed.
- They are then crushed by machines (stones or steel blades) until a paste is extracted.
- The paste is stirred to gather oil droplets (this is called maceration).
- Finally, the oil droplets are spun to remove the water content leaving olive oil.
How should I store olive oil?
Store olive oil in a cool, dark place (away from the stove) to preserve its freshness. Exposure to light and heat is not good. Use within just 3 months of opening (no problem at my house!).
How do I select the best olive oil?
Put olive oil to this 4-Ps TEST
Watch for where the oil originates from – some “Italian” olive oils are actually mixed with inferior oil from Spain or Greece. Or, they may be entirely imported but packaged in Italy. Though Italy may or may not be superior to another country with respect to olive oil, it is preferable to find an oil that is made from the olives of just one region.
Good olive oils will either mark the pressing date or the sell by date (sell by dates are typically one year from pressing). Choose the freshest oil you can find – olive oil does not age well.
If you have the connections and are a true olive oil snob, you can find out what machinery and techniques were used for extraction. The enemies of olive oil are oxygen, heat and light. Oxidization happens almost immediately after harvesting. Once an olive is harvested, it should be pressed in 24 hours (and it is best if its done in a closed system that limits the exposure to air).
Buy a variety of olive oils in small quantities and do a sniff and taste test. You could, of course, just dip bread in olive oil, but why not try these steps that the professionals use to assess olive oil flavor and quality:
Or, better yet, take a tour of a small family-owned olive oil business on a Niteo Tour and let the host guide you through the tasting. Check out Slovenia and Croatia and Italy on our website.