Quick Recipes and Easy

You Don’t Have To Be A Chef To Read An Olive Oil Label

Olive oil has been with us for nearly as long as the olive, which is at least 6,000 years. It is mentioned numerous times in the Christian Bible, singled out as holy by Mohammed the Prophet of Islam, and celebrated by the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Considered the best of all oils, it is the traditional oil for anointing kings, bishops, and temples in western culture.

Olive oil is simple to digest and helps our bodies assimilate vitamins and minerals. It aids the digestive system by stimulating the gall bladder. Olive oil is cholesterol free and is made up of 70% monounsaturated fatty acids, which reduce terrible cholesterol (LDL). It contains chlorophyll which aids the metabolism, stimulating cellular growth and speeding the healing process. And it contains no trans fats.

The olive tree flourishes in Mediterranean-type climates with hot, dry summers and cool winters. Spain, with over 300 million olive trees, is the number one producer of olive oil with 44% of the world market. Much of Spanish olive oil production is shipped to Italy, both for consumption and to be repackaged for sale abroad as Italian olive oil. The region of Andalucía accounts for 75% of Spanish olive oil production.

Selecting the right olive oil can be a daunting task – the terminology used on marks is sometimes confusing and often misleading, and the differences between oils are usually not made clear. Here is everything you need to know to choose the right olive oil for your table or kitchen:

Grades – Olive oils that come from countries that are members of the International Olive Oil Council (of which Spain is, of course, one) adhere to strict regulations regarding labeling and packaging. The grades defined by the IOOC are as follows:

Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from the first pressing of the olives, has an acidity of no more than 0.8%, and has been judged to have superior taste. Extra virgin olive oil can contain no refined oil.
Virgin Olive Oil has an acidity of less than 2% and has been judged to have excellent taste. Virgin olive oil can contain no refined oil.
Pure Olive Oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil, and has an acidity of no more than 1%.
Ordinary Olive Oil is also a blend of virgin and refined olive oils, and has an acidity of no more than 3.3%.
Olive-Pomace Oil is very rarely found in markets, but is sometimes used in restaurant cooking. Made from the residue of the production of higher grade olive oils, olive-pomace oil is fit for consumption but not very tasty.

It is vital to note that these grade definitions apply only to olive oils manufactured in countries that are members of the IOOC, which means that American olive oils may or may not meet these criteria. The USDA doesn’t recognize any of the above terms, instead using terms like “fancy” and “choice” as they have been since 1948, so you could place the words extra virgin olive oil on a tub of strawberry pudding and still be legal in the US as long as the ingredients list is right.

Notice that taste is only a consideration for classifying extra virgin and virgin olive oil. These are the only two grades you would want to use when the flavor of the oil is vital to the outcome of the dish.

Other things you may see on an olive oil mark

100% Pure Olive Oil – This is a bit misleading if you don’t know what it means. Pure olive oil is really the lowest grade available in retail stores, though the word pure might lead some to believe it’s the highest. No question, pure olive oil is an brilliant choice for some uses, which we will get to shortly.
Made from refined oils – The word refined is often associated with increased purity, but in the case of olive oil it means that the taste and acidity were altered by artificial means. Refined oils invariably start with lower quality olives, and suffer from a lack of the right taste of the olive. They undergo thermal and chemical treatments to reduce acidity, subjected to an extremely fine filtration process to remove any residual chemicals, and then fortified with a small amount of virgin or extra virgin oil to give them some flavor and color. The agricultural equivalent of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Lite Olive Oil – or Light Olive Oil. All olive oils have 120 calories per tablespoon, lite olive oils included. Lite olive oils are refined olive oils that have not been fortified with virgin or extra virgin oil, and therefore lack any semblance of taste or color. This type of oil can be used for baking or other forms of cooking where you don’t want the oil to flavor the food at all. Just don’t expect it to help you lose weight.
From hand-picked olives – There is no evidence that manually picking olives produces better oil than the traditional tree-shaking method. The implication is that there are no olives picked off the ground (“windfall olives”) used in the making of the oil, which is a very excellent thing since windfall olives increase the acidity of the oil and require more washing of the olives before pressing, and that the olives are hand selected after being inspected by the picker – also a very excellent thing.
First cold press – You will see this on many bottles of extra virgin olive oil, because EVOO comes from the first cold press by definition. If you don’t see it, don’t worry about it as long as you trust the brand and believe them when they say the oil is extra virgin. First press means that this oil came from the first press of the olives – some companies use a second press for lower grade oils. Cold means no additional heat is applied during pressing.
Estate Grown – All the olives in the oil come from the same grove. This typically means less time to transport the olives to the mill, which means less time from picking to pressing, which results in superior oil.
Unfiltered – Most olive oils are filtered to remove sediments that occur naturally during pressing. Some, but, retain the sediment in the final product. This is thought by many to strengthen and improve the flavor of the oil, and some connoisseurs seek out oils with the most sediment in the bottle. If nothing else, unfiltered oils undergo one less step in processing and are therefore one step closer to being an unadulterated product. The sediments can go rancid over time, so use unfiltered oils within 3 – 6 months of purchasing them and store them in a cool, dark place.
Blended Oil – The olives in a particular grove can change in flavor from year to year. In order to achieve a consistent flavor, manufacturers will blend oils from different types of olives. Sometimes olive oil will be blended with canola or vegetable oil to improve the flavor or for marketing purposes. These oils should be clearly labeled.
Flor de Aceite – Flower of the Oil in English. This is a process where the olives are crushed but not pressed, and the oil is decanted through gravity alone. It takes twice as many olives per liter to produce oil in this way, which is one reason this method is rarely used.

There is also the matter of the bottle itself. Some olive oils come in clear bottles, others in green bottles or even cans. Why is this? One reason a manufacturer may choose not to use clear glass is that there is some evidence that this may enhance shelf life – same reason some beers come in dark bottles. Unfortunately, this prevents you from seeing the oil before you buy it. Using green glass also gives the appearance of deep green colored oil, which many see as a sign of higher quality.

Which brings us to color. Green oils are from olives picked early in the harvest and have a peppery, fruity, ripe flavor in addition to higher levels of antioxidants and polyphenols. Gold oils are from later in the harvest and tend to be smooth and mellow. Green oils have a shorter shelf life than gold oils – figure around 8 to 9 months instead of 12. Color isn’t an indicator of the quality of the oil, though it does have a value all its own.

So, which olive oil should you choose? Depends on what you are going to use it for.

Unfiltered oils are fantastic for salad dressings, dipping, or to drizzle on soups or pastas. They should never be used for cooking, because the sediments reduce the smoke point to a very low level and you are likely to wind up with a burnt taste to your food.

Use virgin or extra virgin oil for dipping, garlic toast, to end sauces, anywhere you will be able to taste the oil.

While the rule of thumb is to only use expensive virgin or extra virgin oils in cold dishes or right at the end of cooking, you can also use them to sauté. They cost more, but many of us only have one bottle of olive oil in the house at a time. Keep in mind that these oils have a relatively low smoke point, so keep an eye on them.

Refined or light olive oils are fantastic for baking. Their lack of flavor is really a plus in baked goods, and you get many of the health benefits of unprocessed oils.

And use pure olive oil for deep frying – its higher smoke point (410 degrees) and less intense flavor make it perfect for this type of cooking.

Store your olive oil in a cool, dark place and pay attention to the date on the bottle. Olive oil is fresh food and can and will go rancid over time, especially if not stored properly.

Matt Wasserman
La Mesa Foods

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