Ode To Olive Oil

“His Holiness would like the olive oil sent to the Vatican.” So goes the traditional papal request for extra-virgin olive oil from Umbria. For centuries even popes recognized and appreciated the superiority of the olive oil from trees in this region and paid farmers to plant them on the middle hills, and in the chalky soil of the Umbrian countryside. To this day, Umbrian olive oil still graces the table in the Vatican, and is considered some of the best in Italy. But even before popes recognized its worth, it was held in high regard in biblical times, and its branches became a symbol of peace for the world. The ancient Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans under- stood olive oil’s worthiness for culinary purposes, but its use also extended to oil for their lamps, for rubbing on the body, and for sale as a profitable trading product.

olive oil

Yet in the American kitchen, the role of olive oil is misunderstood which doesn’t happen in Italian Recipes; confusion reigns as to whether to cook with extra-virgin, virgin, or pomace! Should one cook with extra-virgin olive oil or reserve it solely for dressing salads?

Can it be used to deep fry foods? Which is the best one to buy? Where should I store it? I have been cooking with low-acidity extra-virgin olive oil for years and I know what I like: fruity olive oil for salads, and peppery olive oil for sautéing. Selecting olive oil is a lot like selecting a bottle of wine; it can be a daunting task, but if you know what you like, the job becomes easier, and just as there are hundreds of wines to choose from, so, too, the dilemma exists in the multiple choices for olive oil.

Everything is dependent on your palate and whether or not you like fruity, dense, spicy, mild, or peppery as a flavor characteristic. The best way to determine this is to sample different types of olive oils from various regions of Italy. Generally speaking, the further south one travels in Italy, the fruitier, denser, and greener the oil will be, and as one travels north the oil is lighter in color, less dense, and milder. By definition, and by Italian law, extra-virgin olive oil must not contain more that one-percent acidity; the oil must come from the first pressing of the olives, and no heat can be used to extract the oil.

Only then is an olive oil characterized as extra-virgin. Other grades have higher amounts of acidity and may come from multiple pressings. In the case of pomace, which is the pulp that remains after several pressings of the olives, any remaining oil is extracted with the use of solvents. This oil is refined and blended with a small percentage of virgin olive oil (higher acidity), and sold at much cheaper prices, but in my estimation, you get what you pay for. My suggestion is for you to try several extra-virgin olive oils from different regions of Italy. To really taste test olive oil correctly, take a sip and roll it around in your mouth. Do not swallow yet! Taste it at the tip of your tongue, the roof of your mouth, the center of the tongue, and the back of the tongue. Now swallow it for a throat “finish.”

The different areas of the mouth will produce a variety of tastes, like nutty, peppery, heavy, intense, light, sweet, earthy, grassy, and buttery. If you follow this technique, you will come to appreciate the many properties of olive oil. Find them in Italian grocery stores and on the Internet. Last, a word about storing olive oil; it is best to keep it in a cool, dark place, not in the refrigerator where temperature extremes can affect its flavor, and only buy enough to use up in a short period of time. Olive oil is best used within a year of its purchase, otherwise it could become rancid. Following these guidelines will ensure that you will be using and enjoying olive oil according to Italian tradition.

However, there are other good oils to try from the Italian pantry shelf, including the following:

Walnut oil. Especially popular in the Piedmont and Val d’Aosta regions of Italy where olive trees do not grow, walnut oil is a polyunsaturated fat and a good source of omega-3. It has a high smoke point of 400°F so it is good for frying or baking.

Peanut oil. A monounsaturated fat with a medium smoke point of 350°F, use this flavorful oil for light sautéing.

Sunflower oil. A polyunsaturated fat with a low-saturated fat level, this oil has a high smoke point of 460°F, making it good for high-heat cooking, like sautéing and frying.

Canola oil. Pressed from canola seeds, it is monounsaturated, low in acidity, and good for deep frying.

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