It’s easy to take olive oil, our number one pantry must-have, for granted. That’s why this month we are honoring olive oil, partnering with Sara Forte of Sprouted Kitchen to share tips, insights and recipes featuring olive oil.
There are always questions when it comes to cooking with olive oil. When should you use extra virgin, and when should you just use olive oil? What’s the difference, anyway? It’s time to break things down.
Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality — and most expensive — olive oil produced. According to the Olive Oil Times, this is because extra virgin is “produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents, and under temperatures that will not degrade the oil (less than 86°F, 30°C).”
Basically, this means extra virgin is made by a “cold pressing” method you’ll sometimes see annotated on labels that sets it apart from other grades of olive oils. No added heat means an extra pure product whose natural flavors haven’t been obscured.
Because extra virgin oils are made without any additives, the distinct flavor of the oil comes from the olives themselves. Flavor experts divide the taste into three categories: fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency.
Fruity flavor: Typically made from almost-but-not-quite-ripe olives, extra virgin olive oil that has a fruitier flavor works well as a dressing over leafy salads or steamed vegetables. If you are looking for a fruitier, more mild-tasting extra virgin, a safe bet is to look for bottles produced in Greece. With a lower acidity (which is sometimes noted on the label), Greek extra virgin olive oils will tend to work well for all-around use, and pair nicely with delicate ingredients like seafood.
Pungent flavor: Also described as a “peppery” taste, pungent flavor tends to come from somewhat green olives. Best drizzled over pasta, grilled vegetables, or generally more robust dishes, pungent extra virgin tends to hail from Spain, though can also be found in many Italian varieties — particularly Sicilian olive oils.
Bitter flavor: Extra virgin with a more bitter taste tends to come from mature olives just beginning to turn. Note that “bitter” definitely doesn’t translate to “bad,” as much of the world’s best extra virgin olive oil is classified by pleasant bitterness, just like coffee. These varieties tend to be from Tuscany or other Italian regions.
Making the Grade: Fino vs. Light
While extra virgin remains the indisputable king of the olive oil world, that doesn’t preclude other olive oil variations from being an excellent cooking resource. Most bottles simply labeled “olive oil” are fino (Italian for “fine”), meaning they contain a mixture of extra virgin and virgin oils.
Another type of olive oil on the market is light olive oil. This variation does not mean that it is light in calories or fat content, but rather, due to an intense filtration process, the “light” refers to the lighter color and taste of this variation of olive oil.
Because light olive oil doesn’t have an intense flavor, it is the type of olive oil most often used when frying. When it comes to pan-frying and sauteing, one of the key factors to look for in your oil is a high smoke point, which indicates when oil will convert into that undesired smoke. Light olive oil, compared to extra virgin, can sustain a much higher heat. Keep your EVOO reserved for drizzling and dressings.
Dressing with EVOO
As we enter the season of salads, why not elevate your typical oil and vinegar with a homemade infused olive oil? Using infused olive oils as dressing ingredient is a great way to impart subtle aromatics and flavor to your vegetables. (It also makes an excellent drizzle on a grilled pizza or a dip for a fresh loaf of bread.)
When making your own infusion, try to keep things on the simple side, using no more than two or three infusing herbs and spices. You can use fresh or dried herbs, just keep in mind that dried herbs are almost like a concentrate, so you will use about half you would of a fresh herb. Fresh rosemary, oregano, thyme and basil are all great options —their clean, herbacious notes freshen up the oil. Red pepper flakes are great for heat (the amount you use is up to your heat preference) and meyer lemon zest works wonders for a bit of sweetness and citrus.
Live.Love.Lux Tip: Toast the fennel seeds without burning with the precise and even temperature control of your Electrolux Induction Range.