cucina bene; mangia bene (enlightenment on evoo—part three)
In my last post, we examined the four adverse forces (age, air, light and heat) impacting the quality of olive oil, along with describing some of the classifications used to categorize olive oils. This post also recommended sourcing only Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) for your culinary needs.
Now let’s explore more details about buying olive oil for use in your kitchen:
When buying olive oil, it is important to recognize that while one style of EVOO can be used in the kitchen for all occasions, it is much better to have a variety of individual olive oils on hand in your pantry. This variety allows you more choices in preparing foods that take advantage of the different taste attributes found in premium grade olive oils. In deciding on which oil to purchase, I like to consider both the merits of its functional use and also its price.
Here are some important aspects to consider:
1) As mentioned in my previous two posts, EVOO is usually a mixed blend of olive cultivars possessing different taste profiles and shelf life properties. The lower the oleic acidity levels present within the olive oil, the better the shelf life properties. While EVOO is considered the best quality product due to its low oleic acidity levels, it is still susceptible to the four adverse factors, so the fresher the product, the better for you as the consumer.
2) In considering EVOO products, there are two main groups of olive oil producers offering home use products in the retail marketplace. The first kind of producer is one that has made a significant investment in marketing a wide range of olive oil products, and is modeled along the lines of a consumer packaged goods manufacturer. These are very large companies manufacturing enormous volumes of olive oil production nationally, or worldwide. Their marketing reach is significant across a large base of countries and individual consumers, with aspirations of obtaining maximum market share as their primary company goal. The second group is much smaller in scale and is focused on delivering premium tasting products. These producers strive for artisanal excellence and often times, are using olives grown only on their own estates. Market share is not their concern but rather producing olive oil with high quality and exceptional taste.
3) The large producer of olive oil is normally price-cost conscience and focuses their business efforts on building market share through sophisticated brand marketing activities. Therefore, they produce a large line of products with the emphasis on being very price competitive and also creating a taste profile that is consistent from year to year. The large producer grows their own olives as well as sources huge quantities of olive oil from other third parties. Their manufacturing facilities are massive and include large holding tanks to produce olive oil on a year round basis. These companies use teams of chemists and blending experts to create olive oil products with the same exact taste every year appealing to a wider consumer audience. The goal of their master blenders is to create standardized products, often honing down some of the flavor attributes of bitterness and pungency. This approach provides a stable taste profile for home chefs relying on creating the same food flavors time and time again.
4) The artisanal producer is focused on bringing out the finest qualities of the olive oil in each growing season. In general, olive oil has three primary taste attributes centering on the amounts of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency residing within the oil. With these attributes, the master blender tries to enhance each year’s harvested oils in ways similar to that of an estate wine maker. Each year’s harvest reflects the environmental conditions the olives were grown in and the individual flavor profiles change accordingly with each growing season. Therefore, an artisanal product is unique containing a one of a kind taste sensation based on the finished results for that specific season. Since the volumes of olive oil produced are very low in comparison to large producers, these types of olive oils are more expensive but usually have better flavor attributes and better health properties.
5) Based on the two producer scenarios, a combination of using products from each group provides a good solution for supplying your kitchen pantry. From a functional standpoint, a standardized or bulk type product made by a large producer carries with it less flavor but works well for some cooking methods like sautéing and frying, especially when taking into account the amount of oil needed to support these types of cooking techniques. In these methods, heating olive oil tends to cut some of the fruitiness qualities out of the oil so using a lower priced EVOO makes sense rather than using a higher priced artisanal one. Also, the softer or blander flavor profiles of these bulk style oils leave less of an impact on the final taste of the finished foods. Whereas, the artisanal EVOO products are best used as a finishing (condiment) oil at the end of the cooking process or within other prepared foods like side dishes, salads or when dipping bread into the olive oil directly.
6) The artisanal products may include special blends with certain types of cultivars that traditionally pair well together or some styles of oils focusing on a regional orientation such as Spain, Italy, France or Greece. These regional areas may grow a certain set of cultivars that have been integrated into the region’s local cuisine over many years. Therefore, some chefs like to use a French Olive Oil made in Provence when cooking Provencal cuisine, or using an Estate Grown Tuscan Olive Oil in preparing Italian Food Recipes from the Tuscany Region.
7) For bulk style oils, the flavor profile focuses in on the tasting attribute of fruitiness and less on the other two attributes of bitterness and pungency. So bulk oils tend to be less varied in taste when comparing them from different countries or competitors, and the real battle for the manufacturer lies in achieving lower price points and delivering fresh products for purchase with long lasting shelf lives. For artisanal products, all three taste attributes come into play as well as the freshness of the oil. While price points are a factor, the connoisseur qualities existing within the artisanal oils are what drive the purchasing decision usually.
8 ) While there are no official standards for artisanal olive oils when it comes to overall taste, some international olive oil competitions use three main categories to compare likewise products. These categories are identified as Delicate (Light Intensity), Medium (Intermediate Intensity) and Robust (Intense Fruitiness). A delicate oil exhibits lighter taste characteristics while showcasing the olive fruit itself with very little bitterness or pungency experienced in the aftertaste. Robust oils display both bold fruitiness qualities and also strong attributes of bitterness and pungency in the finishing taste. Medium oils are fruity and will have slight accents of bitterness and pungency in the finishing taste. These three attributes are important in reviewing both blends and also mono-varietal ones, where only one cultivar is used in producing the oil.
9) When using artisanal products in preparing foods, a good starting point is to match the intensity of the oil to the intensity of the corresponding food recipe. Delicate oils featuring buttery and floral fruit qualities will pair nicely with seafood, sauces, vegetables or chicken for example. Robust oils may be too powerful for some foods but may enhance a bolder dish like grilled steak, hearty soups, greens, savory pastas or Spanish paella.
As a good starting point, I recommend having on hand one bulk style olive oil and two artisanal oils (delicate and robust). Additionally, you could select an oil with medium intensity, one mono-varietal selection, or one specialty oil flavored with some kind of citrus.
Though we can not control all the aspects of how olive oil reaches us as the consumer, there are some basic buying skills we can deploy to improve our chances of locating fresh and top quality olive oils. By taking into account the four adverse factors impacting olive oil in a negative way, we can frame our buying activities to avoid old, bad tasting or rancid products merchandised incorrectly at the retail level.
Here are some tips when shopping for olive oil:
1) The color of olive oil does not correlate directly to how its tastes or its freshness. The color of the oil depends on many factors including the cultivars used, the ripeness level of the olives harvested from the tree, the blending process, the distribution process for reaching the end consumer and even how the oil is merchandised. If the oil does not look right either appearing faded or oddly colored in relationship to the standard color range of green to yellow, do not purchase it.
2) Most of the olive oil production occurs around the Mediterranean region. Countries of note include Spain, France, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Tunisia. Though a product might be imported, this does not necessarily ensure or guarantee that the product is fresh or meets EVOO standards. In addition, there have been reported cases of imported olive oil being adulterated with cheaper seed or nut oils, or products mislabeled promoting a certain country of origin when the oil was produced in a completely different country and usually is a lesser quality oil.
3) When shopping in grocery stores or specialty food stores, analyze how the oils are merchandised. Retailers have bad habits of placing olive oil in areas subject to lots of light and heat. Avoid any oils that have been placed in the front window, or are getting hit with direct sunlight or bright store display lighting on a continuous basis. In some cases, I have seen exhaust fans from nearby refrigeration equipment or HVAC vents blowing hot air right onto the product displays. Be careful of oil bottled in clear glass. Quality minded producers will use dark colored or foiled wrapped bottles, or will ship their oil in tin cans to minimize light exposure. Also, avoid oil bottled in plastic as it can pick up off flavors from the chemical properties of the plastic itself.
4) Keep in mind the store environment you are visiting and the specific knowledge and expertise level of the sales personnel. You may find a situation suitable within a grocery store generating high volume sales, so purchasing bulk oil may be okay there. For artisanal products, I would advise purchasing these from a retailer adept at handling olive oil or going to the producer directly like in the case of olive oil grown and bottled in California.
5) During shopping, take a look at the display shelves and how the bottles are placed. If the shelves or the bottles appear dusty, avoid them. If you do find an oil of interest, ask the sales person if they can pull a bottle from the latest shipment or from the back-up supply located in the stock room. Additionally, retailers often place the older products up front as part of their product rotation strategies, and many times the freshest product is sitting in the back, and best of all, in the darkest and coolest part of the shelf. A little detective work in the aisle can lead to outstanding results.
6) When considering olive oil for purchase, inspect the label information. Quality conscience producers will note either the harvest date or the production year, or a ‘Best Before’ date. Labels may also contain certification seals placed on them representing that the oil meets a regional standard or has been reviewed by an independent authority like an IOC certified tasting panel.
In my next post, we will take a deeper look at the shopping clues found on the labeling information, review some more buying tips and cover additional aspects on imported olive oils. Bruce