Olive Oil: Mysteries Revealed

Olive oil: Know what you're buying

All olive oils are not created equal

Seems like everyone’s into olive oil these days. I’ve seen it in restaurants, in stores, on dining tables, and in kitchens everywhere – even the most traditional of Brahmin adige manes and Punjabi rasoi ghars. “Yeh toh haalth ke liye achcha hota hai, toh hum ab isme hi pakaate hai sub kuch,” (This is good for health, so we now cook everything in it) seems to be the prevailing school of thought. However, all olive oils are not created equal. “Whoa”, I hear you say. “Isn’t all olive oil “good” oil? And if not, how can you tell the difference?” I have four words for you: read the frickin’ label. Use It or Lose It Let’s start with basics. The olive is a fruit. Olive oil is extracted from the olive. In some ways, that makes it akin to a fruit juice. It can – and does – go rancid. As with fruit juice, exposure to air, heat, and light can shorten its shelf life. And contrary to popular belief, it does not “age” like wine. Instead, it breaks down, the acidity level rises, and flavor weakens. Rule of thumb: use it or lose it. Since olive oil costs a pretty penny, you’ll want to prolong its shelf life. Here are my storage rules:

  • Never buy the Huge Economy Cans. Unless you run a restaurant (or bathe in olive oil everyday), you will not be able to use it fast enough, and its flavor will deteriorate over time.
  • When buying, grab a bottle from the rear of the display – it will have been exposed to less light than those at the front.
  • Tinted glass bottles or stainless steel containers keep out light. and are nonreactive – unlike most plastic bottles or those fancy copper or iron jars which initiate nasty chemical reactions with the olive oil.
  • Airtight caps are a must, to ensure that oil retains its aromas and flavors.
  • Food fanatics dictate that olive oil be stored at 14ºC. Most chefs will tell you that a room temp of 21ºC will do just fine.
  • You can refrigerate, or even freeze olive oil to preserve its flavors. Just make sure that the bottle is closed tightly to prevent the oil from absorbing other food odors. If the oil thickens or turns cloudy in the fridge, it will re-liquefy and turn clear again at room temperature.
  • The more air there is in the bottle, the quicker it’s going to spoil. As you use up the olive oil, transfer to a smaller container – or use it at a faster rate.

I Know What A Virgin Is… … but what is an “extra-virgin” oil? And is it the same as a “pure” one? And “light” olive oil contains less fat, right? Right?

Green olives, ready for crushing

Green olives, ready for crushing

It’s one thing to be able to read those labels; you also have to understand them. And to be able to interpret the labels correctly, you need to have a basic understanding of how olive oil is made.

Step 1, Crushing: Post-harvest (a process in itself), the olives are stripped of leaves and stems, then washed prior to crushing. Older methods of production involved doing this with stone mills; today, manufacturers use stainless steel rollers to grind the fruit and their pits into a paste.

Step 2, Malaxation: Water, in carefully controlled quantities, is then stirred into the paste (a process called malaxation).

Step 3, Heating: The resultant mixture is sometimes heated to increase the yield of oil.

Step 4, The First Press: The paste in then spread onto finely meshed mats, or placed in a centrifuge for further extraction of oil.

Step 5, Refining: The paste may then be heated again, pressure treated, or refined using chemicals in order to extract more oil.

Deciphering the label Olive oil is like wine – its flavor depends on the variety of the olives used in its manufacture, the climate and soil of the region in which they were grown, and the time and method of harvesting. Connoisseurs of olive oil describe its flavor using terms like “grassy”, “fruity”, “sharp”, “nutty”, “buttery”, “bitter”… just like wine. The color, too, runs the gamut from a bright, bilious green to a rich yellow to pale gold… and in the case of inferior oils, colorless. Here’s where the ability to understand the label counts. Differences in flavor, smoke point, and acidity levels make different kinds of olive oil suitable for different culinary purposes.

Premium extra virgin olive oil is the best, most flavorful (and therefore most expensive) you can buy. An oil that is labeled “extra virgin” is a) created from the first pressing of the olives, not the second (think “thick” coconut milk versus “thin”); b) contains only olives, and no chemicals or other oils whatsoever; and c) contains a minuscule 0.225 percent acidity level.

Extra virgin olive oil is the next best thing, also from first pressing, with an acidity level regulated at no more than .8 percent. The higher acidity level makes it marginally less flavorful and healthy – 0.575 percent less so, to be precise.

Virgin olive oils (fine, virgin, and semi-fine) are also derived from first pressing, and contain no chemicals, but – and this is a big but – their acidity levels are progressively higher, and their flavors decidely weaker as you go from fine to semi-fine.

Different labels = different oils

Different labels = different oils

Ensure that the label also indicates that virgin or extra-virgin oils are “cold pressed”, “cold extraction” or “first pressing”. Ideally, this indicates that the olives have been pressed sans any form of heat (duh); if they have been heated (Step 3), they have not been exposed to a temperature higher than 27.7ºC, thus retaining flavor and integrity.

Refined olive oil (also labeled pure olive oil) is made when inferior quality oil – extracted after the first pressing by using a combination of high heat or pressure – is made fit for consumption by treatment with chemicals. Pure olive oil has a higher acidity level and inferior flavor; it is often combined with virgin or extra-virgin olive oil to add flavor.

Light and extra light olive oil have nothing to do with calorie count; they are merely refined olive oils that are lighter in color and flavor, and have a lower smoke point. The idea is that you get the health benefits of olive oil without the strong flavor.

Olive pomace oil refers to the oil that is extracted by chemically treating the gunk that’s left after all the edible oil has been extracted from the ground olives and their pits.

By the way, “Product of Italy” printed on the label means that the oil was processed in Italy, not that the olives were grown there.

For the health-conscious...

The Health Thing So what’s with the “great for health” tag? Olive oil contains more monounsaturated fat than any other oil or cooking fat, is loaded with antioxidants, and – in the case of extra virgin oil – contains high levels of Vitamin E. Yes, this paragraph is very short. Next page: How To Use Olive Oil: Some Ideas


7 thoughts on “Olive Oil: Mysteries Revealed

  1. Great article there or should I say articles. This is coming to become one of my favorite reads – great information and that too relevant locally. Otherwise you read a lot of info on other blogs, but then just keep feeling bad as its not relevant to Bangalore or not contextual at times. This is very contextual, local and timely. Keep up the good work.

  2. Hey Suman,

    As promised…went thru your blog…and I read abt the Olive Oil article…very detailed and indepth..really liked it..

    It will be great if you could rate the Olive Oil bottle from Jordan…

  3. Agree with this post totally…..Earlier I was totally confused about this as well, so did some research on it&frankly uncovered some surprising things as well…..like the ones labelled pure olive oil are anything but that;) lol!!It is actually a blend of refined pomace oil and virgin olive oil…talk about taking us for a ride;)
    You may find our post interesting as well &yup,have posted some lovely original recipes with olive oil -check it out at http://wp.me/p1TExl-2I 🙂 Liked your recipes as well-will try it out..:)

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