Why Just One Bottle OF EVOO Won’t Do
Photo: Olive Oil at Pixabay.
“One size fits all” might describe your oven mitt, but it certainly doesn’t apply to the extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) in your kitchen. Take a quick peek in your cupboards. If you have only one bottle of EVOO on hand, it’s time to rearrange your shelves and make room for a couple more. As increasing numbers of consumers have become enamored with the benefits of a Mediterranean-inspired diet, this age-old food staple has moved to the forefront of the up-and-coming cooking scene. There are literally hundreds of premium olive oils to choose from in today’s marketplace, and knowing how to select just the right one for your particular purpose can mean the difference between a meal your guests will appreciate and one they’ll talk about for weeks to come. If you’ve ever enjoyed the distinctive, earthy flavor of a fresh EVOO drizzled over salt and peppered asparagus or liberally sprinkled over a nicely charred barbequed steak, then you know exactly what we’re talking about.
Although olives (a Mediterranean tree crop) and their liquid fat by product (olive oil) have been cultivated for several millennia, they continue to surprise us with their health-related and flavor-inducing qualities. Rich in heart-healthy fatty acids, antioxidants, minerals and vitamins, unrefined extra virgin olive oil is notably the highest quality and most expensive type of olive oil. To qualify as EVOO, an oil must be extracted from fresh olives, without the use of chemicals or excessive heat. Centrifugal force is typically used, resulting in an oil that has zero sensory defects and the required low acidity levels. However, even within this narrow classification, there is a tremendous amount of variation in the composition of individual oils. An oil’s intensity, flavor, aroma and color are all influenced by a range of factors, including the type of olive, growing conditions, ripeness at harvest, and processing methods. As a result, the defining traits of a particular EVOO are best expressed as points along an almost limitless spectrum. Colors range from a light gold to deep green and flavor intensities run the gamut from subtle and elusive to bold and assertive.
How then, can we choose?
To help us make sense of it all, we sat down with Mark Priestley, a credentialed member of Applied Sensory Taste Panel and founder/co-owner of Palo Alto-based Yummy Artisan Foods. EVOO, Mark explained, naturally falls into three categories: delicate, medium, and robust. And within these categories, a practiced palate can identify hints of ripe fruit flavors, such as grass, nuts, bananas, and butter, as well as green fruit flavors, such as artichokes or green olives, tea, tomatoes, and almond husks. Some complex oils are prized for their bitterness, a quality that indicates the presence of healthy polyphenols and stimulates saliva production, which in turn allows for greater flavor extraction and contributes to a lingering, but pleasant, tingling feeling in the mouth and throat. Given all these variables, choosing the right EVOO to pair with your food is as important as choosing the right wine. Just as you wouldn’t want to allow a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon to overpower a beautiful baked sole filet, you also wouldn’t want to allow a heavy-hitting EVOO to commandeer each bite of an otherwise light and flaky fish dinner.
With so much to know and learn about the multitude of EVOO brands available today (from domestic and foreign producers), it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Who knew grabbing the right bottle of EVOO could be so complicated? But as Mark continued to share his thoughts on the subject, we began to see a light at the end of the culinary tunnel. The trick to a great pairing of food and olive oil seems to be matching the intensity of the flavors in both. Always strive for a partnership where your EVOO of choice complements and enhances, rather than overshadows, the flavor of the food it’s garnishing. Every home pantry should be stocked with the following three types of EVOO:
A delicate EVOO made from milder olive varietals, such as Arbequina, will leave behind a smooth, mellow buttery sensation, with an aroma of fruitiness and very little bitterness and pungency. Clean and balanced, a delicate EVOO is the perfect partner for tender vegetables and greens, as well as for mild fish and fowl that are baked, broiled, grilled or simmered gently in a light sauce. Additionally, many bakers prefer using a delicate EVOO, as opposed to butter or other fat, in their cakes, pie crusts, and cookies. Swapping olive oil for butter not only reduces the amount of saturated fats in foods, it also introduces more nuanced flavors and appealing textures to a wide assortment of baked desserts.
A medium EVOO steps up the intensity of flavors just a notch. Often fruitier, with a slightly spicy or peppery finish and a pleasant balance of bitterness and pungency, a medium EVOO pairs well with flavorful vegetables and greens, such as arugula or radicchio and is also delicious in vinaigrettes or as a base for dipping bread.
A robust EVOO, typically made from greener olives, can really pack a punch with a strong aroma, prominent peppery finish, and a persistent blend of bitterness and pungency that lingers on your tongue and leaves your mouth tingling. This assertive oil can be relied upon to elevate the taste sensations associated with full-flavored foods, such as bitter greens, heavy soups and stews, red meats, hearty casseroles and spicy pasta sauces.
Cooking methods also play a role in determining the best oil to use. In comparison to other cooking oils and fats, EVOO has a mid-range smoking point, the temperature at which an oil begins to burn and break down, losing much of its inherent goodness and flavor. For this reason, EVOO is best reserved for low- to medium-heat cooking, such as baking, sautéing and simmering. And even then, some believe that to truly reap the most from your investment, the best of the best EVOO should be kept away from heat entirely and instead saved for use in salad dressings, as a bread dip, or as a finisher to be drizzled over prepared foods. Mark, however, cautioned against reading too much into the generalized warnings about heat and its deleterious effects, pointing out that a premium EVOO starts off with such an abundance of nutrients and other assets that even if a certain amount of goodness is sacrificed due to the cooking method, there’s still plenty left to go around. This line of thinking is bolstered by the fact that in most Mediterranean countries, olive oil is the oil of choice – for dipping and for cooking.
Of course, the best way to choose any ingredient is to taste it yourself. Make plans to attend an olive oil tasting and sampling party, or better yet, host one yourself. Meanwhile, peruse the award-winning EVOO available at www.yummyartisanfoods.com and read what their expert staff has to say about each new release. Every EVOO description includes an assessment of the oil’s flavor, intensity level, and most appropriate cooking methods – including links to creative and mouth-watering recipes. In fact, the sooner you visit, the sooner you can begin cooking. We could use a little Capellini with Pesto right about now. How about you?