Olive Oil   -   [Oleaceae]
Oil & Olives

Here we have the king of both cooking and salad oils with a range of quality and flavors we associate with wine. The Finest olive oils do tend to come from areas famed for wine: Italy, California, Greece (OK, retsina may not be to your taste) and Spain. Turkey, Lebanon and Tunisia also makes fine olive oil, and could make good wine but for the prohibitions of Islamic law. Of these, Italy and California produce the top quality oils. Italians import huge quantities of olives from Spain and Greece, so oil labeled "Italian" isn't guaranteed made from Italian grown olives. In fact it may contain little oil of Italian manufacture at all.

When I first learned to cook, "health experts" warned us to avoid olive oil since it contained more artery clogging saturated fats than other vegetable oils. Today it's the only oil both the warring seed oil and coconut oil partisans agree is healthy and it's the darling of both gourmets and natural foods enthusiasts. Now saturated fats are gaining favor, hydrogenated oils are the devil and polyunsaturated vegetable oils are trying to avoid demonization.   Photo © cg1.
More on Oils.



Buying:   Olive oil is best (and most economically) purchased from markets serving Mediterranean communities: Spanish, Italian, Greek, Turkish or Levantine. Trader Joe's also usually has a good selection of quality olive oils, but only in the Extra Virgin grade. They are the best local source I know for California olive oils.

Select the grade appropriate to your use, Extra Virgin isn't necessarily what you want (see below).
Caution:   Some cans and bottles with pretty pictures of olives all over them are actually "blended oils" with more Canola Oil or other oils than Olive Oil. Read the Ingredients statement on the container.

Storing:   Olive oil should be stored in a cool place and out of direct sunlight. In tightly sealed glass bottles it will keep up to a year but should be discarded after that. If stored below 50°F/10°C it will become cloudy, and if refrigerated it will become positively murky, but it will be unharmed and will clear up if allowed to rest at a warmer temperature.

Grades:   The grades of olive oil can be a bit confusing, but the only ones most Americans really need to deal with are Extra Virgin, Pure Olive Oil and Olive Pomace. The grades are quality grades, not flavor grades, and within any particular grade there will be wide differences of flavor depending on maker and country of origin. Grades are set by the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) in Europe. The US is not a member of the IOOC but the only significant North American producer is California, where, for economic reasons, only Extra Virgin grade is made. The official USDA grading system predates the IOOC grades but is totally ignored even in North America.

The IOOC grades are listed below, with the ones you're likely to encounter in North American markets underlined:

  • Extra Virgin is cold pressed (first pressing) oil with 1% or less oleic acid. The European Union is expected to lower this to 0.8% to make it more meaningful because 1% includes 70% of European production (and just about 100% of California production). Use this oil for salads, condiments and other low temperature uses to preserve the flavor you are paying for.
  • Fine Virgin is cold pressed oil with 1.5% or less oleic acid. Use the same as Extra Virgin for salads and condiments.
  • Virgin is cold pressed oil with 2% or less oleic acid - used for salads, cooking and low temperature frying (up to 320°F/160°C).
  • Semi-Fine Virgin can have oleic acid as high as 3.3% and is best used for cooking and low temperature frying.
  • Lampante Virgin can have flavor defects and oleic acid higher than 3.3% and is not used for direct human consumption but rather as feed stock for making refined olive oil.
  • Pure Olive Oil (also called just "Olive Oil") is generally a blend of 85% refined oil and 15% virgin oil. It's a good general cooking oil for use at higher temperatures than virgin oil (up to 410°F/210°C) and accounts for 80% of the oil consumed in Spain and Portugal. With very little olive flavor it is suitable for all ethnic cooking where a specialty oil is not called for. It is the best general purpose oil for the kitchen.
  • Refined Olive Oil is virgin or second pressing oil refined to remove flavor defects and high acidity. The final acidity is 0.3% or less and it has no characteristic olive oil flavor. It is a good cooking oil that can stand higher temperatures than virgin oils. Unlike other refined oils, chemical solvents are not used for this grade.
  • Light or Mild olive oil is filtered to remove much of the olive oil flavor, and is in some cases a blend of olive and other oils. These products are sold mostly to the "health conscious" at "value added" prices. "Light" refers to flavor and it has just as many calories as any other olive oil.
  • Olive Pomace Oil is olive oil extracted with heat and solvents from the crushed residue left from making better grade oils and is then refined. This process is similar to that used to produce seed oils, but olive better stands up to the process because of its low polyunsaturate content. This is the best deep fry oil you can afford.
    Olive Pomace lacks any olive oil character and is not generally found in supermarkets, though markets serving ethnic populations often have it, generally in gallon cans. Most is sold to commercial food processors who use it because it is low cost and can stand higher temperatures than any other olive oil, but can still be listed as healthful "olive oil" in the ingredients. In truth, the health benefits of olive oil are uniform throughout the quality grades.
    Caution: the term "Pomace Oil" is insufficiently specific, and some oils under that label are actually mostly Canola Oil or some other inferior oil. Read the Ingredients statement on the container. Some Olive pomace oil is blended with a small amount of virgin oil to improve flavor, but for deep frying pure olive pomace is better.

Important Note:   "Pomace" grade olive oil is extracted using heat and solvents, and is then refined. Some so-called "experts" say this makes it unfit for human consumption - and then recommend Canola Oil produced by an even more intense process. All oils usable at high frying temperatures are refined by these same processes. Olive Oil goes through fewer steps and its unique composition makes it better able to withstand the stress. Canola oil, with it's high percentage of polyunsaturated oils, fares much worse, and others are worse than Canola. Note that "refined" olive oil (found mostly as "Pure Olive Oil") is possibly the only 400°F oil that is not solvent extracted.

Usage Guidelines:

  • Extra Virgin is used for "drizzling", for condiments, salad dressings and other low temperature applications where a distinctive olive oil flavor is desired. It can be used for low temperature frying and braising but will lose its distinctive flavor if heated to 300°F/150°C or beyond.
  • Pure Olive Oil should be the main cooking oil in your kitchen - a superb multi-use oil. It can be used the same as Extra Virgin wherever the distinctive flavor of ExtV is undesirable. It's flavor is sufficiently neutral for Asian and other ethnic cooking. Über-expert Julie Sahni considers it just fine for Indian recipes. It can be used for all moderate temperature sauté and braising applications and for moderate temperature deep frying, anything below 400°F/200°C.
  • "Lite" Olive Oil is for when you want to avoid polyunsaturated oils but want a flavorless oil, and don't mind paying more. Effectively, it's the same as refined olive oil but "filtered" rather than "refined", so the price is a lot higher - it's sold mainly into the yuppie market. Caution: some "Lite" olive oils are blended with Canola Oil or other inferior oils.
  • Olive Pomace is used for intense deep frying with temperatures even up to 450°F/235°C. You can also use it as you would "Lite" olive oil if the words "solvent extracted" and "refined" don't scare you, but I'd instead recommend Pure Olive Oil which you should always have on hand.
  • Olive Canola Blends seem a way to make a cheaper oil and still use "olive oil" on the label. A decent moderate temperature frying oil (to 400°F/200°C) with little or no distinctive olive oil flavor. Certainly healthier than corn or soy oil (way lower in polyunsaturates) but less durable (higher oxidation factor) than pure olive oil for deep frying. Use it for short "use once" applications.
Reusing Olive Oil

Because it is more durable than any other common frying oil except beef tallow, olive oil from deep frying can be reused within limits. It should be immediately strained through a plain white paper towel and stored in a sealed jar. It should not be kept long before reuse because it could have picked up less durable components from what was fried in it. If it was used for frying fish it should not be used for any other application except frying fish.

Health & Nutrition

Olive Oils are the safest, most healthful and generally useful oils you can buy. Of course the Coconut Oil proponents would dispute that, but their oil only goes to 350°F so it fails "generally useful". See my pages Oils and Health and Oils - Smoke Temperature & Composition for the reasons why.

Fraud

Olive oil fraud is rampant, particularly in Italy (also noted for wine made without grapes) and Spain. Usually this amounts to dying a cheap oil like sunflower greenish, but people have died in Spain from industrial grade rapeseed oil (see Canola Oil) colored with a toxic dye. Little of this crap gets to North America, but how much less serious cheating does get here is currently a mater of intense debate.

What does get here is plenty of oil labeled "Italian" with little Italian content. US law requires full disclosure but the law is widely ignored. In Europe olive oil with any Italian content can be labeled "Italian".

Links

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