Issue 09: OLIVE OIL
Stop saving *that* bottle!
Olive oil! This issue was especially daunting as most of us buy olive oil regularly and blindly select a bottle from the wall of olive oils at the grocery store. The smaller, more expensive bottle with an artisanal Italian logo or the massive tin with organic seals? What does cold pressed mean? Is this truffle olive oil really made with truffles? What is a smoke point? Do I care? Welcome to Issue 9!
What makes olive oil so special?
Like wine, olive oil has a distinct terroir unique to the soil and climate where it grows. Like salt, there are oils for different uses, such as finishing oils, cooking oils, and flavored oils. But unlike other fats, olive oil is extracted from a fruit not a seed (olives are a drupe aka a stone fruit, like a plum). True extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is extracted without heat, using a hydraulic press or centrifuge similar to fresh squeezed juice. The lack of heat or chemicals means EVOO has the highest levels of polyphenols, the antioxidants responsible for that peppery taste that sometimes makes you cough.
Like the swill milk of the 19th century, olive oil is extremely at-risk for food fraud. Tom Mueller wrote the story “Slippery Business” about olive oil fraud for the New Yorker in 2007, followed by his book Extra Virginity in 2011. Both works remind the reader that olive oil has been stretched with tasteless, lesser quality oils for thousands of years: olive oil was a precious commodity even before it became a cash crop for the Roman Empire.
As recently as three years ago, the Italian Carabinieri, aka the ‘FBI of food’, busted a mafia ring exporting fake olive oil to New Jersey. (The olive oil fraud profit margin can be 3x as much as cocaine!) And as Alicia Kennedy reminds us in her piece “When a Tomato Becomes a Luxury” our affordable, everyday luxuries come at the cost of exploitative labor and olive oil is no exception. Get to know your olive oil producer and find out about their harvesting and extraction operations.
What’s the difference between Virgin Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
Both virgin and extra virgin olive oils are extracted without excessive heating and chemical refining but EVOO has an acidity of no more than 0.8 gram per 100 grams of oil. Its flavor and odor must be deemed “excellent” in a sensory evaluation, aka a taste test. In layman’s terms, EVOO is worth the squeeze both literally and financially as it will be the most nutritionally dense and have the best flavor. Should you find yourself with both virgin and extra virgin olive oils in your pantry, reserve the EVOO for finishing and tasting and use the “middle of the road” virgin olive oil for sautéing or browning.
Personally, I find myself grumbling about the price of *good* olive oil. I seem to have no problem spending money I don’t have on natural wine but for whatever reason hesitate before ordering another bottle of Brightland. Why?
When searching for BIPOC grocery brands in June for Issue 07, I learned about Exau Olive Oil and began exchanging emails with co-founder Skyler Mapes. I had seen a few suggestions (including in Queen Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat) to make an expensive bottle of EVOO last by blending some of it with another, lower quality oil and saving the rest for tasting. Mapes didn’t agree:
If the price point for premium EVOO is out of your budget, go with a lower quality olive oil. First try lower quality EVOO, then virgin olive oil, then plain olive oil for cooking and use the high quality extra virgin olive oil for finishing. Virgin and plain olive oil are likely to be processed (heated to a certain temperature). The health benefits (polyphenols) will be gone but it's not bad for you. If virgin oils are still out of your price range I recommend unrefined avocado oil or another unrefined cooking oil.
And as far as the price point? Mapes pointed out my budgeting flaw pretty accurately:
To provide a bit of perspective, many of us will go grocery shopping and spend $14 - $40 on a bottle of wine. That bottle of wine will be gone in a day or two (almost immediately if entertaining). So why is it that we're willing to spend more on alcohol than olive oil? That bottle of $27 olive oil could easily last 30 days, that bottle of $15 wine lasts maybe a day.
Aside from the high price tags that don’t always correlate with quality, olive oil labels are confusing and fraught with misleading language. There are a few brands that dominate most grocery store shelves and California Olive Ranch consistently receives good reviews. But be careful! Some of their bottles are labeled “Destination Series”: these oils are not made with California olives but are instead a blend of olive oils from different countries, making its point of origin much murkier. You want your olive oil to come from a single source, as opposed to a blend. Per the EXAU Olive Oil website:
Blends’ can also be composed of leftovers from smaller and larger olive oil companies. For example, if a large olive oil company needs more product it can buy left-over product from any olive oil maker or press in Italy. The company would then combine all of the product in giant vats and sell it to the public. This is what many large olive oil companies do and now you know.
Tricky phrases to look out for on olive oil labels:
“Cold pressed” or “First cold pressed” - To say EVOO is “cold pressed” is redundant. Most EVOO is extracted using a centrifuge: if heat was used to extract oil from the olives it would, chemically speaking, not be considered virgin or extra virgin oil. Additionally, the phrase is not regulated by the USDA or the FDA so it is purely marketing malarkey.
“Product of”, “Packaged in”, or “Bottled in” - All this means is that the oil in the bottle was packed and shipped from that location. So, for example, if a bottle of olive oil says “Product of Italy” this does not guarantee the olives were grown or harvested in Italy, simply that the oil inside the bottle was packed and shipped in Italy. Rude!
“Pure” or “Light” - Olive oils labeled as such are not “diet” options and do not contain less calories but instead are devoid of any nutrients thanks to the refining process using heat and chemicals to strip away all odor and flavor.
“Infused” - Flavored or “infused” olive oils are usually chemically flavored, so that’s gonna be a hard pass. Nosrat explains the *one* exception in her cookbook: “Olive oils marked agrumato which are made using a traditional technique of milling whole citrus fruit with the olives at the time of the first press. The Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco is known for their bergamot agrumato drizzled over chocolate ice cream.” (And if you too are wondering wtf a bergamot is, allow living lej David Lebowitz to explain it to you with his delightful charm.)
Ideally, the bottle would have a harvest date, but commodity supermarket brands will most likely only include a “Best By” date. Choose an oil with a date as far ahead into the future. Keep in mind, a “bottling date” is not a “harvest date”: oil can be stored for months or years before it is bottled.
Certification seals on the bottle from organizations like NAOOA (North American Olive Oil Association), COOC (California Olive Oil Council) or IOOC (International Olive Council) are good signs that what you are purchasing is truly extra virgin olive oil.
When buying EVOO, make sure you buy in quantities that you will quickly use, no more than a few weeks worth. Buying in bulk may seem like the more economical option, but olive oil sitting in a large container will be exposed to more oxygen and its quality will deteriorate quickly. Also try to purchase from stores with a high turnover to avoid buying rancid oil. Dark bottles or tins are best as they prevent light exposure.
With the weather cooling down, this parsnip confit with currents recipe from Molly Baz looks pretty and parsnips simply do not get enough respect. Garlic is a popular candidate for an olive oil confit project.
Can you cook with Olive Oil?
Here’s where smoke points come in. The truth is, an oil’s smoke point does not necessarily correlate to its performance. The widespread advice to not cook with EVOO is simply incorrect according to Mapes.
So then why are people so hung up on smoke point? Mapes explains:
Famous chefs are the top spreaders of misinformation in this industry. For example, there have been multiple articles and videos over the past 10 years with Thomas Keller saying not to cook with extra virgin olive oil and spreading misinformation... Chefs are NOT olive oil producers, they're not chemist, they're not agronomists. They are chefs, and just as we would not tell them how to cook and operate a restaurant they need to stop 'educating' the public about a product they're not properly educated about. It's extremely frustrating.
The International Olive Council says, “Olive oil is ideal for frying. In proper temperature conditions, without over-heating, it undergoes no substantial structural change and keeps its nutritional value better than other oils, not only because of the antioxidants but also due to its high levels of oleic acid. Its high smoke point (210°C/410°F) is substantially higher than the ideal temperature for frying food (180°C/356°F).”
If you are in search of proper olive oil education, Mapes recommends studies from University of Barcelona, the University of Madrid, Sapienza University, Harvard University, UC Davis and Olive Oil Times.* (*Hyperlinks are my own)
Now that we know olive oil is actually more like a fruit juice, freshness is imperative: ideally, as soon as the olives are harvested they are sent to be pressed. Once the olive oil is bottled, its freshness, peak taste and quality begins to fade. Heat, air, light, and time (aka H.A.L.T.) are olive oil’s natural enemies.
Before I started doing research for this post, I was storing my EVOO right next to the stove on my kitchen counter, which I now realize is epically incorrect. Now, I keep it in a cool, dark cupboard far away from the oven. If the bottle of olive oil you purchased is in a clear bottle, go head and wrap it in foil to prevent light exposure. Do not put it in the fridge. It’s not a thing and it damages the product. Mapes told me, “Honestly, we would have to ask our chemist what happens to the actual molecules when oil is placed in the fridge but we've done it before and the oil tastes weird and looks very strange afterwards.” Heard!
And please, please, please do not “save” your olive oil. Use it now and use it with abandon!!
REMEMBER: “ENJOY BY”, “BEST BY”, “BEST BEFORE”, “BEST WHEN/IF USED BY”, ARE NOT SAFETY DATES! These dates are issued by the manufacturer, estimating how long the olive oil will remain at “peak quality”. THE BEST WAY TO DISCERN QUALITY IS THE SMELL AND/OR TASTE TEST!
Olive oil color is no indication of quality! An ideal EVOO label would include third party verification, a harvest date, and an estate name. Buy olive oil packaged in a dark bottle or tin and store in a cool, dark place. Rancid olive oil will smell like plastic, wax, or crayons and taste like fusty, over-brined black olives, wine or vinegar. Consume olive oil within a year of purchase and/or 18 months from harvest date, don’t save it! Avoid "infused" oils.
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