After many years of demonstrating our oils to customers in stores and giving cooking classes, we have put together this list of the questions we hear the most:
Let’s start with the term ‘Virgin.’ That means that the olive oil is extracted from the olives by mechanical means, rather than with solvents and high heat. All other readily available vegetable oils – canola, safflower, peanut, etc – even non-virgin olive oil – are chemically dissolved out of the plant material, and then the solvent is boiled off. Unless the label on a vegetable or nut oil indicates that it has been expelled or expressed (and the price confirms this expensive method), you can assume it has gone through chemical processing.
Now, for the term ‘Extra Virgin.’ This means that the virgin olive oil has passed chemical tests for purity and taste tests to assure the absence of spoilage flavors. You should be able to count on getting a healthy, tasty olive oil, possessing the flavors of the olive fruit. Unfortunately, only two states in the U.S. have just recently adopted the international standards for this designation, and the term is widely misused here for oils that may not even come from olives. That’s why it is best, here in the United States, to buy EVO oil that is certified as Extra Virgin, and certainly to avoid bargain-priced ‘Extra Virgins.’
In the case of California olive oils, look for the seal of Extra Virgin certification from the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and check the date of certification – even EVO oils eventually age beyond Extra Virgin standards. The COOC follows International standards when classifying California olive oils as Extra Virgin.
For foreign olive oils purchased in the U.S., it is more difficult. (Foreign oils purchased overseas are subject to labeling requirements, and thus are trustworthy.) Check the label for an indication of authenticity, such as a Denomination of Protected Origin, which in Italian is D.O.P, in Spanish is D.O., in French is A.O.C. Additionally, check for a vintage date, and be suspicious of bargain prices. Finally – and this applies to all uncertified EVO oils – take an educated guess, and see what you get. You can find uncertified EVO oils that are quite fine in flavor.
Yes! – and there’s a difference between olive oils as well. Olive oil is certainly healthier than trans-fats, hydrogenated fats or animal fats. However, the full goodness of olive oil comes from the polyphenol content, which depends largely on the oil’s quality. Olive oil is the only vegetable oil that contains polyphenols, and true Extra Virgin olive (EVO) oil is the only olive oil that contains significant quantities. Generally, the polyphenol content of olive oils starts around 50 mg/kilogram and goes up to 250 mg/kilogram for Extra Virgin olive oils. Apollo Olive Oil has made oils as much as 700 mg/kilogram polyphenols, and we are committed to extracting as much of the polyphenols as possible – that’s why we’ve invested in our state-of-the-art vacuum mill!
Polyphenols are a class of antioxidants found in a variety of foods – red wine, green tea, chocolate, olive oil and more. Antioxidants are now widely touted for their ability to combat aging and many health conditions. Recent studies indicate that the oil-soluble polyphenols are very potent – and the research is just beginning. It’s a very exciting field right now – science is increasing our understanding of the bioavailability of polyphenols and their effect on health, and milling technology is breaking new ground for higher extraction.
This idea seems to come from opinions about wine. The suspended particles in unfiltered oils may at first give flavor that is missing in filtered oils, but these very particles threaten the life of the oil with spoilage. The sediment contains microbes that decompose the bits of olive flesh and produce off-flavors called ‘fusty,’ ‘musty’ and ‘winey’ by olive oil experts. Even unfiltered oils certified as Extra Virgin in their youth, may develop these off-flavors over time. Filtering removes the risk of this type of spoilage, and is a standard practice for most producers attentive to quality.
Olive oil doesn’t improve with age like wine does. First, it must be said that ordinary olive oil, being predominantly refined, is essentially odorless and flavorless, and hardly changes – except eventually to go rancid from exposure to air. If you wonder what rancidity really is, just remember the particular smell and lingering taste of stale peanuts.
Extra Virgin olive oil on the other hand, is a natural raw product, subject to variations year to year and to changes with time. Generally speaking, a young EVO oil will be fresh and even perky with aromas and flavors. As time goes by, the filtered EVO oils will mellow, becoming softer and milder – but still quite pleasant. Unfiltered EVO oils may develop off-smells and flavors at any time, largely depending on storage conditions. Eventually, all oils will turn rancid.
Traditionally, due to the biannual bearing pattern of olive trees, olive oil is made every other year when olives are abundant. On the off-years, when the crop may be as small as 10% of the abundant years, table olives are made. Therefore, the life-expectancy of olive oil is generally taken to be two years. In truth, it depends on the quality of the oil and how it has been stored – some EVO oils are capable of extended life, beyond two years – but there is no point in buying old oil, and no reason to age the oil you buy.
When looking for a good EVO oil, always check the vintage date. If there’s no date, then there’s no way to know how old the oil really is. Olives are harvested in the late fall and early winter, anytime between October and the end of January in the Northern hemisphere. Blending and bottling usually occur in the new year.
It isn’t recommended. Most EVO olive oils become cloudy and thick under refrigeration. And, as with wine, we have found that extended refrigeration can result in diminished aromas and muted flavors, even after the oil is back to room temperature.
Extra Virgin olive oils contain the flavors of the olive fruit. (Tasting a raw olive is one of those experiences you would hope never to repeat.) Bitterness, along with pungency and vegetal/fruit flavors are considered positive attributes in EVO olive oils, particularly when they are well balanced. Depending on many factors, such as the olive variety and ripeness, milling technique, and the age of the oil, the bitterness and pungency can be quite intense. Sometimes professional tasters jokingly classify EVO oils as ‘one-cough, two-cough or three-cough’ oils. Fortunately, these strong olive oils make wonderful condiments. Once you get used to them, you’ll find them more and more attractive. These strong flavors are evidence of a healthy amount of antioxidants in the oil. When an oil does not have these strong flavors it is almost devoid of any antioxidants. These strong flavors are very good for your health.
A good olive oil has vitality; it is alive – like a good wine. It smells of the fresh vegetal world. In your mouth, the flavors bloom and then linger. Poor oils are an inert experience – no smell, little to no flavor, and often a distinctly oily texture, compared to a good olive oil. If they are old, there may be a slight but persistent rancid smell and flavor, like old peanuts or old oil paints.
An easy way to understand for yourself, is to compare two or more olive oils of different prices and qualities, side by side.
Many factors play a role in the flavor and composition of a good olive oil. Flavors vary distinctly by variety and by the degree of ripeness at the time of harvest. Unlike wine, olives can be harvested over a period of several months during which they slowly ripen from green to multi-colored to purple and finally to black. Each stage of ripening yields a different quantity and flavor of oil. Different weather patterns and variable production factors also have an effect. The miller’s blending skills determine the final composition prior to bottling.
Both excellent and fraudulent EVO oils come to us from Italy, so generalization is dangerous. Tuscany is a center of olive oil excellence, and Sicily, Liguria, Umbria and Campagnia also produce excellent olive oils – not to mention the oils from smaller regions. On the other hand, Italy exports five times more oil than could possibly be produced within the country – and the U.S. demand for Extra Virgin olive oil consumes a huge amount of that export. (The unstated factors are the quantity of oil imported into Italy, its quality and even its authenticity.)
Olive trees grow around the globe in areas with a Mediterranean climate, and excellent olive oils are possible wherever quality production techniques are followed. Annual international competitions, including the Los Angeles County Fair, have become quite interesting in recent years, as the number of competing oils and participating countries have both increased dramatically.
California is also experiencing a regrowth of its olive oil industry and is producing many excellent EVO oils. The majority of award winning California olive oils is coming from the eastern foothills of the Sacramento Valley, where olive groves have long been established.
Pairing olive oil with food is a bit like pairing wine and food. It takes experience and understanding of both. In general, delicate oils will enrich and complement subtle flavors – fish, mushrooms, home made mayonnaise, heirloom tomatoes, seafood pastas, and so on. The idea is not to overpower the primary flavors. Robust and pungent oils will answer the call of heartier cuisines: red meats and sausages, casseroles, thick soups, garlic dishes, rich pastas. You can also experiment with contrasting combinations to add interest (for instance, a fresh mozzarella with a pungent oil, or a pecorino cheese with a soft one). A good pair will bring flavors out.
Balsamic vinegar has become quite popular in recent years here in the U.S. If you think about it, you might become curious how supplies have kept up with the U.S. demand – but that’s another story.
For your use, we recommend finding a balsamic vinegar equal in quality to your olive oil and using it sparingly, with the same attention to pairing that you give to other components of your meal. True balsamic vinegar is held in high regard by Italians, used by the drop and only on specific dishes, such as Bistecca alla Fiorentina and Parmegiano-Reggiano salad.
To add a soft acidity when dressing salads with olive oil, experiment with Meyers lemon juice, or with a mixture of an off-dry white wine and your usual vinegar.
It is a question of quality – dark glass protects the contents from the deteriorating effect of light. Just think of all the health products available in brown bottles, expensive dark green wine bottles and the demise of milk bottles in favor of opaque cartons. Even a few weeks of light exposure will accelerate the aging of olive oil. The fact that so many olive oils are in clear bottles is certainly a question of marketing.
It is also a good idea to store your oil in a (dark, cool) cabinet rather than on the (bright, warm) counter top, to slow its aging.
It’s not so easy to make a really nice EVO oil, and these oils are best appreciated as they are. Flavored oils are usually made from lesser oils because olive oil is quite susceptible to odors and flavors, and will easily absorb a flavoring agent. The best use of a mediocre olive oil may be as the base for a nice flavor. Of course, if the oil has been heated in the process of flavoring, it may even lose quality.