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Extra-virgin olive oil

Fine Cooking Issue 94
Photos: Scott Phillips
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At the peak of summer, eating light takes on a whole new meaning. Crisp salads with vibrant vinaigrettes, lightly dressed fresh pastas, and grilled lean meats and vegetables dominate the dinner table. Extra-virgin olive oil is ideal for preparing and garnishing these summery dishes, but which oil to buy? The vast array available at the supermarket can be overwhelming.

We thought we’d help by exploring the world of supermarket extra-virgin olive oils. In general, they should have a balance of bitterness, fruitiness (a distinct olive flavor), and pungency (in olive oil terminology, the peppery bite in the back of your throat). But because extra-virgin olive oils are blended and processed differently around the world, each oil is unique in aroma and flavor (appearance has no bearing on the quality of an oil). They run the gamut from mild and delicate to peppery and robust, depending on the production region, the harvest season, the olive varietals included in the finished oil, the acidity level, and many other factors.

There’s really only one way to figure out which olive oils you like, and that’s to taste and taste again. We sampled 23 readily available extra-virgin olive oils from across the globe (see the panel It’s All About the Taste, below, for an explanation of our tasting process). The oils listed here were our favorites.

Smooth & buttery

Silky-smooth and mild but never bland

Ollo: Mild and Mellow ($10.49 for 16.9 oz.), from Australia, is aptly named—it’s subtle, smooth, and delicate, with a green, perfumy aroma. The finish was mild too, which makes it ideal for vinaigrettes.

Colavita extra-virgin olive oil (about $9 for 17 oz.), made exclusively from Italian-grown olives, is our number one choice for cooking. The aroma was understated and the flavor buttery, almost silky, with the barest hint of a peppery finish. It would be a good addition to any recipe where you’re looking for subtle olive flavor, like those featuring mild, flaky fish or fresh vegetables.

Fruity & fresh

Versatile and medium bodied, with fruity aroma and flavor

Tassos ($10.69 for 17 oz.), harvested and bottled in Crete, Greece, is a winner for its deep, almost smoky fruitiness. The fragrance is strong but pleasant, evocative of crisp greens, apples, green olives, and unripe bananas. Very fresh and only slightly bitter, this oil would be wonderful in a salsa with grilled meats, in any raw or gently cooked sauce, or served with crusty bread for dipping.

Lucini’s (about $14 for 500 ml) Italian organic extra-virgin olive oil is a clear favorite, with fruity and herbal notes in both the aroma and flavor. Tasters picked up a lot of green banana and fresh olive flavor and really enjoyed the subtle peppery kick in the finish. We would happily use this oil for dressing green or vegetable salads or on zesty pastas.

Green & herbaceous

Think green—freshly mowed grass and leafy herbs

We loved Terra Medi’s (about $12 for 500 ml) grassy, herbal scent. Produced from Greek olives, it is well balanced with a clean mouth-feel and notes of green fruits and nuts. The finish is buttery and mildly bitter, and it unfolds gently across the palate. This oil would be delicious drizzled over bruschetta or bean salads or with rich, grilled fish or meat dishes.

Unio’s (about $13 for 17 oz.) extra-virgin olive oil is made from Arbequina olives grown in the Catalan province of Spain. Its fresh, green aroma and flavor won us over immediately. With loads of olive fruitiness up front and a lovely pungent kick at the end, this would be a great oil for garnishing summer soups or platters of cured meats.

Peppery & ripe

Robust and complex, with a spicy kick and earthy olive flavor

McEvoy Ranch ($20 for 375 ml), an extra-virgin olive oil from California’s Napa Valley, was one of the most complex and deeply flavored oils of the lot. We loved its ripe, olivy fragrance, intensely floral and fruity flavors, and pungent, peppery finish. We wouldn’t cook with it because heat would diminish its nuances. It’s perfect for garnishing a cheese plate or a platter of grilled meat and vegetables.

Filippo Berio (about $6 for 17 oz.), a blend of extra-virgin olive oils from several Mediterranean countries, is powerful, with a bright, citrusy fragrance and an almost hay-like flavor, with a prickly, spicy bite at the end. This is an excellent choice for cooking when you want to add ripe olive notes to your food, but it’s nuanced enough to stand on its own, too.

The ideal oil for:

  • Cooking: Colavita
  • Vinaigrettes: Ollo: Mild & Mellow
  • All-purpose: Filippo Berio
  • Dipping crusty bread: Tassos
  • A finishing touch: McEvoy Ranch

What does extra-virgin really mean?

According to the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), olive oil qualifies as extra-virgin if it has been mechanically extracted from the olives (no chemicals or heat can be used in the process), has no more than 0.8% acidity, and has no defects in flavor or aroma. The United States is not a member of the IOOC, but oils from California are regulated by the California Olive Oil Council, whose standards are even stricter: It allows no more than 0.5% acidity.

It’s all about the taste

Tasting extra-virgin olive oil, like tasting wines or even chocolate, is a science unto itself, but our methodology was relatively simple. We conducted three separate tastings of seven or eight olive oils each so that we wouldn’t get palate-weary. At professional olive-oil tastings, oils are served in blue or green glasses so the tasters will not be influenced by the oil’s color, but for simplicity’s sake, we poured ours into small white plastic cups.

We smelled each oil, sipped the oil straight, and then tasted it with very thin slices of white bread. Tart green apples served as palate cleansers (water and oil don’t mix, so drinking water is ineffective). Our goal was to categorize each olive oil into one of the four flavor categories at left and to recommend culinary uses, whether for cooking or as a finishing touch.

Speaking the language

As with wine tasting, there is a vocabulary for tasting extra-virgin olive oils. To help our tasters pin down the flavors they were experiencing, we referenced the following list of terms: almond, apple, artichoke, astringent, banana, bitter, briny, burnt, coarse, earthy, flat, fresh, fruity, grassy, greasy, green, harmonious, hay-like, herbal, lemony, melony, metallic, musky, nutty, old, peppery, perfumy, pungent, rancid, rough, suave, sweet, winy.

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