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Learn - Olive Oil 101


ABOUT OLIVE OIL

“WHAT IS EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL AND WHAT MAKES IT BETTER THAN PLAIN OLD OLIVE OIL?”

An excellent place to start! “Extra Virgin” is a grade of olive oil, just as AA is a grade for eggs. This legal standard was defined by a group called the International Olive Council (IOC). To be “Extra Virgin” an olive oil must be made solely from olives and entirely by mechanical means—no solvents or chemicals. The olive oil must be processed without high heat; temperatures should be below 86° F. The free fatty acid level of the olive oil must be less than 0.8%. Also simply called the acidity, this is a measure of the freshness and quality of the olives that were used. The peroxide value of the oil must be < 20 meq/kg. This is a measure of oxidation, and a high peroxide value indicates that an olive oil will become rancid more quickly. There are some other chemical parameters used by the IOC, primarily indicating shelf life and to detect adulteration, but the free acidity and peroxide value are the biggies. Finally, in order to be “Extra Virgin,” an olive oil can have no flavor defects and must have some olive fruitiness when tasted by a trained, recognized taste panel. This means that there can be no rancidity, fermented flavors or any other off notes in an olive oil for it to be true extra virgin.

“SO IT’S A GOOD THING THE INTERNATIONAL OLIVE COUNCIL IS ON THE JOB ASSURING QUALITY FOR AMERICAN CONSUMERS, RIGHT?”

Uh, wrong. The US is not part of the IOC. Recently, California and Connecticut both passed laws adopting the IOC standards, but enforcement is another issue. In the past, the term “extra virgin” could be used with impunity by any olive oil merchant regardless of the real grade of the oil (as long as it was made from olives). The US has been a dumping ground for low-quality olive oil for years. The majority of the imported “extra virgin” olive oil on US supermarket shelves could not be sold as extra virgin in Europe, because it isn’t really extra virgin grade. Hopefully this will change soon with the new laws on the books and enforcement in the wings.

“I ALWAYS BUY “EXTRA LIGHT OLIVE OIL” – ISN’T THAT BETTER FOR ME (LESS FAT AND CALORIES)?” 

In our dreams. Notice that a few years ago the words “in flavor” materialized next to “extra light.” So the only thing you are getting less of is flavor. Calories and fat are the same. Even worse is the truth behind Extra Light in Flavor olive oil: it is primarily refined olive oil that has been flavored with a little bit of extra virgin. So you are paying a lot for refined olive oil.  When you think of “refined”, think of what goes in your car’s gas tank.

“WHAT IS REFINED OLIVE OIL?” 

If you make olive oil from funky rotten olives you get a low-quality olive oil referred to as lampante (originally the grade used for burning in lamps). It tastes absolutely awful, so it is made palatable by refining. All the flavor, odor and color are removed in an industrial process and you are left with refined olive oil. (The gasoline in your car is "refined" too!) When some extra virgin is added to this refined oil for flavoring, you get a product called “Pure Olive Oil” or just “Olive Oil.” Add just a tiny bit of that extra virgin and you have “Light (in Flavor) Olive Oil.” For reference, you should be aware that virtually every vegetable oil on the market is refined: sunflower, safflower, rapeseed (aka canola), corn, soy. Extra virgin olive oil is a rare oil because it is so natural and unmanipulated.

“I’M EMBARRASSED TO ADMIT IT, BUT I LIKE THE WAY LIGHT OLIVE OIL TASTES.”

 You are not alone. A lot of people like the fact that Light olive oil isn’t too strong. But instead of an industrial product like refined olive oil, look for a fresh mild extra virgin in all its natural glory. There are many olive oils that have delicate flavor profiles—perfect for someone who is just discovering this fabulous food. Remember also that refining removes the polyphenols, tocopherol and other compounds are that are part of what makes olive oil so good for you. Light Olive Oil makes an excellent furniture polish, by the way, and is good for revitalizing leather….

“WHAT DOES ‘FIRST COLD PRESS’ MEAN?”

In today’s olive oil world, “first cold press” is meaningless. Almost all olive oil is now produced using a centrifugal decanter, not a press at all, and it is a good thing. A centrifuge is faster and cleaner, allowing the production of the highest quality olive oil. For historical perspective, the term originates from the fact that in the old days there was a first cold press that squeezed out the first run oil. That left quite a lot of oil in the waste material (olive pomace), so there was a second hot press. That involved letting the olive pomace rot for a while to loosen the remaining oil, then mixing it with hot water and squeezing it again. Yum. Nowadays that happens at a refinery where they make olive pomace oil.

“I ALWAYS BUY OLIVE OIL THAT SAYS, ‘PRODUCT OF ITALY’ ON THE LABEL – IT MUST BE THE GOOD STUFF, RIGHT?”

Uhhhh, no. The actual origin of the olive oil in these bottles now appears, so it is kind of fun. Look at the front it says “Product of Italy.” Look at the back and it says “May contain olive oil from Spain, Italy, Greece and/or Tunisia.” The best guarantee that you have a genuine product is to know the producer and have confidence in them. There is a system of guaranteed origins in place in the EU, the DOPs of Italy, the DOs of Spain; these give you an assurance that the oil originates in a particular region. “California” olive oil, on the other hand, does have real meaning in California law; if you say it is from California, it must be 100% California olive oil, produced from 100% olives.

“I KEEP MY OLIVE OIL RIGHT NEXT TO THE STOVE SO THAT I REMEMBER TO USE IT. ISN’T THAT A GOOD IDEA?”

Try tying a string around your finger instead. Olive oil has four enemies: air, light, heat and time. Keeping olive oil next to the stove – a bright, warm place – will pretty well assure that it becomes rancid quickly. If it is in a clear bottle or decanter, that is much worse. Store olive oil in a cool dark place, tightly closed. And use it. Olive oil, unlike red wine, does not improve with age. Don’t hoard it or save it; use it. Figure that an olive oil is at its best for about a year after it is made. There is a lot of variability: very strong, early harvest oils can last longer, and delicate late harvest oils will taste tired after a year. This is because the polyphenols in olive oil are antioxidants. High polyphenol oils are naturally more resistant to oxidation than lower polyphenol olive oils. But all olive oils are better when they are fresh, so use them up!

 OLIVE OIL ATTRIBUTES

The sensory evaluation of olive oil follows defined standards developed to determine the quality of an oil. The fact that there are more negative attributes than positive attributes reflects the importance of weeding out defective oils. The positive attribute “fruity” includes an entire world of olive oil flavor nuance and individuality; it is here that more descriptive detail paints a fuller picture of an olive oil. In 2007, the International Oil Council (IOC) added some additional descriptors for labeling purposes; these terms add more detail to the positive side of the evaluation equation.

THE PRIMARY DEFECTS OF OLIVE OIL

Fusty/Muddy Sediment – Characteristic flavor of oil obtained from olives stored in piles which have undergone an advanced stage of anaerobic fermentation. This flavor can also be obtained when oil has been left in contact with sediment which has settled in the bottom of underground tanks and vats which has also undergone a process of anaerobic fermentation.

Musty – Characteristic flavor of oil obtained from olives in which large numbers of fungi and yeasts have developed as a result of its being stored in humid conditions for several days.

Winey/Vinegary – Characteristic flavor of certain oil reminiscent of wine or vinegar. This flavor is mainly caused by a process of aerobic fermentation within the olives or in the olive paste left on pressing mats which have not been properly cleaned. This leads to the formation of acetic acid, ethyl acetate and ethanol.

Wet Wood/Frozen – Characteristic flavor of oil extracted from olives which have been injured by frost while still on the tree.

Rancid – Flavor of oil which has undergone a process of oxidation. 

THE POSITIVE ATTRIBUTES OF OLIVE OIL

Fruity – Characteristic taste of oil which depends on the variety and comes from sound, fresh olives, either ripe or unripe.

Bitter – Characteristic taste of oil obtained from green olives or olives turning color.

Pungent – Biting tactile sensation characteristic of oils produced at the start of the crop year, primarily from olives that are still unripe. This is commonly described as being “peppery”.

Optional terminology for labeling purposes from the IOC: 

Greenly fruity – Set of olfactory sensations characteristic of the oil which is reminiscent of green fruit, depends on the variety of olive and comes from green, sound, fresh olives.

Ripely fruity – Set of olfactory sensations characteristic of the oil which is reminiscent of ripe fruit, depends on the variety of olive and comes from sound, fresh olives, green or ripe.

Well-balanced – Oil which does not display a lack of balance, by which is meant the bitterness, pungency and fruitiness are all in harmony with the fruitiness being dominant.

Mild oil – Oil in which the bitter and pungent flavors are slight or not present. 

WHAT MAKES AN OLIVE OIL TASTE THE WAY IT DOES?

There are two major influences on the character of an olive oil: variety and maturity. There are other influences as well, such as climate, irrigation and processing method, but these usually have a lesser impact.

Olives can be harvested for oil at a wide range of ripeness, from completely green to completely black. (It should be mentioned here that all varieties of olives start off green and eventually turn black.) When a green olive is pressed for oil it will generally yield oil with a higher level of bitterness and pungency. This is because the polyphenol content of an olive decreases as it continues to ripen on the tree. Polyphenols are the compounds that contribute the bitterness and pungency to the olive oil and also provide many of the health benefits. The antioxidant properties of the polyphenols explain why greener harvest oils have a longer shelf life than ripe harvest oils; the natural antioxidants slow the onset of rancidity in early harvest oils.

One of the trickiest parts of making a great olive oil is timing the harvest. Harvest too early and you can have oil that is aggressively bitter and overwhelming. Harvest too late and you may produce a bland oil that lacks character and will become rancid in a short time. A good producer knows his or her varieties and harvests them at the peak point to make the most of that cultivar’s qualities.

Maturity is not the only determinant of polyphenol content. Different olive varieties have different polyphenol concentrations. Some varieties, like Coratina and Picual, are naturally high in polyphenols, other varieties, like Arbequina, are intrinsically lower.

HEALTH INFORMATION 

FAD DIETS

Are you tired of weird fad diets yet? Seems like there is a new one every few months, each with its’ own set of extreme guidelines. Human beings are attracted by novelty, it is true; which is why the diet book market is perennial. Hopefully we are also guided by common sense, practicality and intuition.

Regardless if you like fad diets or dislike fad diets, you could always think of the Mediterranean diet as a many thousand-year-old fad that just won’t quit.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, fish, seafood and cereals with a low intake of meat and meat products and dairy products. It also features a high ratio of mono-unsaturated to saturated fats, with olive oil being the primary fat in the diet.

A very important part of the Mediterranean diet is the high intake of vegetables. It can be argued that this is closely linked to olive oil for a simple reason: vegetables cooked with olive oil taste so good that no one has a problem eating healthy amounts. It is not uncommon to have a minor squabble over who will get the last of the Kale with Olive Oil and Garlic!

OLIVE OIL: A GOOD FAT

Hopefully we are all over the idea that dietary fat is always bad. So very not true. Some dietary fats do seem to be bad—trans-fats for example. Good fats are a critical part of our diet, so we should seek out healthy fats that will benefit our health. Watching the overall amount of fat in our diets is still important, so we need to substitute healthy fats for other fats, not simply add good fats on top of the bad fats. It is also important to remember that we are human beings, not chemistry sets, so we want to find healthy things that taste good!

Olive oil is primarily mono-unsaturated fat, the healthiest fat for your heart. It has also been shown to raise protective HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). The health benefits of olive oil don’t stop with the mono-unsaturated fat, however. Extra virgin olive oil has additional health benefits due to the polyphenols, tocopherols, plant sterols and other things present in this fresh, unrefined product. Refined olive oils have virtually none of these other chemicals.

OLIVE VARIETIES

ARBEQUINA

This Spanish variety is currently the most planted olive in California. It is the mainstay of the super-high-density olive production system, a method that allows a high degree of mechanization while harvesting the olives. Arbequina produces a mild, fruity oil, characterized by almond and tropical notes when it is ripe. Harvested greener, it is grassy, with a little pungency but usually has minimal bitterness. Traditional style Spanish Arbequina is very fruity, ripe and soft. 

ARBOSANA

This variety is grown in the super-high-density system in California (see Arbequina). It is Spanish in origin, but rarely seen there as a single varietal oil. It is becoming more popular in California for its bright herbaceous profile.

ASCOLANO (OR ASCOLANA)

Traditionally grown for table olives, this variety is used to make oil as well. It has an apricot/stone fruit flavor that is very distinctive. The ripe oil has a strongly tropical note. This variety originated in Italy.

FRANTOIO

This is one of the main varieties in most Tuscan blends. It is a central Italian variety that yields exceptionally fine fruity oil. The ideal harvest is about halfway between ripe and green, giving it a green, grassy and artichoke quality with floral and nutty undertones and excellent balance of fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. 

KORONEIKI

This Greek variety is the third olive found in super-high-density production. It is highly prized for its extremely aromatic oil. It has a distinctive varietal note reminiscent of banana, green or ripe, depending on the maturity of the olives.

LECCINO

This is another one of the varieties found in a Tuscan blend. This central Italian variety produces a sweet, delicate oil with a cinnamon-spice note. It can be harvested quite green for a bright, peppery flavor profile. 

MANZANILLO

This is the dominant table olive in California. However, it is also being used to make olive oil in styles ranging from very green to very ripe. This variety is from Spain, and is widely planted worldwide for table olive production. 

MISSION

California’s “native” olive. The Mission olive can be used to make either an early harvest or late harvest style oil, or something in between. The greener style will have piney, herbaceous notes with distinct pungency and bitterness. The ripe style Missions tend to be very round and buttery, with tropical/pineapple flavors. 

SEVILLANO

This Spanish variety is best known for its role in the bottom of a Martini glass. Although predominantly used for pickling, it makes a superb olive oil with a very characteristic flavor of grassy and herbaceous notes. 

TAGGIASCA

This northern Italian variety has recently garnered a lot of attention in the California premium olive oil world. The traditional Italian oil from this variety is a late harvest, very delicate style. The California Taggiascas tend to be earlier harvest and have a much more complex and assertive profile. It is grassy, floral and well-balanced. 

 ... yes there are more... lot's more...

OLIVE OIL PRODUCTION

HOW IS OLIVE OIL MADE?

Making olive oil is a simple process. The oil inside a well cared for, undamaged, just-right olive on the tree is perfect; all the olive oil mill needs to do is get the oil out of the olive without messing it up. It’s not as easy as it sounds – like most simple things there is a lot of finesse involved—but the fundamentals are not complicated. 

GREAT OLIVE OIL STARTS WITH GREAT FRUIT

Time is of the essence when you are making high quality olive oil. The minute an olive leaves the tree, it begins to deteriorate. The best olive oil is made within hours of harvest. As olives sit, they begin to undergo anaerobic fermentation—that is fermentation in the absence of oxygen. They will start to heat up, just like a compost pile, and the resulting breakdown of the fruit leads to higher free acidity in the oil and defective fusty flavors.

HARVEST

 

Olives can be harvested in many ways, and all of them can yield excellent olive oil if the fruit is processed immediately. Hand harvest is the oldest and most expensive method. The olives can be picked into buckets, raked or beaten onto tarps, or rattled and shaken with various handheld machines to get them off the tree onto collecting nets. Larger machines that shake the trunks of the trees, or the canopy, are used extensively all over the world. There are also over-the-row machines that use a row of bars to beat the sides of the trees and dislodge the fruit into a collector.

Despite occasional romantic advertising copy to the contrary, first rate olive oil can be made from mechanically harvested fruit. In fact, there is an advantage to machines since they are so much faster and allow the fruit to be processed within a very short time of harvest. The down side of machines, beater-bar types in particular, is that some of them can bruise the fruit. This is not a major concern if the fruit is going to be processed within hours of harvest; the processing involves considerably more trauma to the olives than just bruising (it grinds them to a pulp, to be specific). 

Olive Harvest

GRINDING

Once the olives are harvested they must be rushed to the mill. Really rushed. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Speedy processing is essential for making good olive oil; the sooner you mill, the less the fruit will deteriorate. At the mill, leaves and sticks are removed from the olives, and the fruit is washed. From the washer it goes to a grinder that creates a paste. 

There are different methods of grinding. The most common by far is the hammer mill. It is fast, continuous, easy to clean and produces oil with a lot of character. Stone mills, the standard for most of history, are still used by some producers. Stone milling is less efficient because the olives must be milled in batches, there is more oxidation because the paste is exposed to the air for an extended period and stone mills are harder to clean thoroughly. Stone grinding results in a coarser paste and less bitterness in the oil. This can be helpful when milling certain varieties, but most producers opt for the greater flavor extraction and efficiency of hammer mills. Another option that is growing in popularity is the disk mill. A disk mill can produce paste that is more similar to a stone mill’s in texture, but it is continuous, easy to clean and results in less oxidation.