- Reading Labels
- Most olive oils sold today are labeled either ''olive oil'' or ''extra-virgin olive oil.'' If the label says simply olive oil or pure olive oil, it means the original oil was treated with chemicals and heat to remove odors or impurities. The ''cleaned'' oil was then blended with some flavorful olive oil to bring it back. Although it is inferior to extra-virgin olive oil, it is economical, and many cooks use these lesser oils for roasting, sautéing, and other preparations where the flavor of an extra-virgin olive oil would be lost. Extra-virgin olive oil has not been subjected to heat or treated with chemicals. The olives were picked at their height of ripeness and stored under tightly controlled conditions to avoid bruising and spoilage, and to protect the natural taste of the fruit. The taste can be fruity and rustic, light and buttery, or fall anywhere in between. Extra-virgin olive oil can be used for cooking, except for the very expensive oils, which should only be used as finishing oils.
Making a Selection
- Olive oil is an agricultural product, so its character is defined by the soil and the variations in climate. In general, oil pressed from olives grown in hot climates, such as those of Sicily and Morocco, is a bit more rustic and fruity. (In this case, fruity means tastes strongly of the olive.)
- Oil pressed from olives harvested in cooler climates, such as Liguria, is usually smooth, buttery, and a bit more elegant. Tuscan oils are known for their bitterness and pungency. They are very robust, with high polyphenol counts, are very healthy but very flavorful and hold up well with other strong flavors. The age of the trees, the olive variety, and the style of the region also affect the final product, so look for information on the labels.
- Extra-virgin olive oils come in a dizzying range of prices due to various factors, including quality and supply and demand. Also, larger producers will often sell oil at a reduced price, whereas small producers can’t afford to discount their limited stock.
- A sensible way to approach buying olive oil is to purchase several types. Keep a small bottle of expensive oil on hand as a finishing oil to use sparingly for coating salad greens, drizzling on bread, or sprinkling over cooked vegetables. Use less-expensive extra-virgin olive oil for roasting, sautéing, or frying.