How to Taste Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil tasting, like wine tasting, can reach high levels of refinement. For instance, the panel in Florence led by our mentor Marco Mugelli is able to distinguish seven types of pungency. Although this sensitivity is admirable, it is beyond the reach of the average taster, and even beyond many experts. However most of us can learn to distinguish good oils from bad ones and to appreciate the positive attributes of olive oils. The more you taste attentively, the more your senses will sharpen and the more readily you will recognize the various qualities. Tasting is also fun to do with family and friends. Here are some guidelines:
Professional glasses are small, round, stemless and blue. This design has two purposes. Firstly, the shape fits in the palm of your hand, so the oil warms and releases its aromas. Secondly, the dark glass hides the color of the oil. Why? The color of an olive oil is never an indicator of quality. Moreover, since we all have preferences and associations with colors, some producers manipulate the color to be more pleasing. For these reasons, it is better to simply avoid any personal biases by masking the color during a tasting.
Professional tasting glasses are available for about $10 per glass, at the Corti Bros. gourmet grocery in Sacramento. All this being said, it is also fine to use wine glasses – a smaller rimmed glass will hold the bouquet better, just keep in mind what was said about color.
Selecting the oils.
Start by trying no more than 3 or 4 oils at a time. It is always helpful to include a low-priced brand, since you can learn a lot from an industrially-produced oil. These bargain products are generally non-descript “rectified” oils that have been treated with solvents and heat to remove defects and unpleasant odors and colors. (Even though they’re not extra virgin, these are often labeled as such, since until now, there have been no laws in the U.S. to regulate this designation.) Since they are devoid of either good qualities or defects, they’ll give you a baseline for learning about other oils. Make sure to include at least one olive oil that has been certified by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) as this certification means it was found to be truly extra virgin, and without defect. Finally, when purchasing oils be sure to check the date and make sure the oil is not older than 18 months.
The tasting preparations.
Wait at least an hour or so after eating or drinking anything to be sure your palate is fresh and ready for new sensations. Don’t wear cologne, and make sure your hands are free of odors.
To set up the tasting, first smell each empty glass to be sure it doesn’t have any off-odors itself, coming out of storage or the dishwasher. Mark the glasses if necessary to avoid confusion. Pour a little more than one tablespoon of oil into the glass. Don’t worry about the order of the oils at this point, you may wish to rearrange them for tasting, after a smell test.
Hold the glass in the palm of one hand and cover it with the other. Wait until it is warm. Whirl it a bit, bring it very close to your nose and take a couple of sniffs. Don’t overdo it. The sense of smell easily becomes overloaded. This means that smell impressions can linger, affecting the following tasting.
TIP #1, for recognizing a good olive oil: You have to smell something of the vegetable world. The spectrum ranges from grass and fresh green leaves to tropical fruit and flowers, but don’t try to identify any particular smell. You can also recognize defective oils with too much aerobic fermentation – if you manage to penetrate down to the bottom of the smell, you’ll find something like nail polish remover.
Pleasant aromas come from healthy, fresh olives and are what we call “fruit.” Fruit is one the major attributes evaluated by tasting panels.
When learning to taste, avoid describing the aromas as you would do when tasting wine. The palate tires easily with an oil tasting, and it is better to just concentrate on asking:
1) Does this olive oil smell something of the vegetable world?
2) Is it a fresh, ripe smell? (not old, tired or odd.)
3) How intense is this perfume?
Depending on the different smells in your line up of oils, you may want to rearrange them for tasting. Most people taste left to right. Generally, you’ll want to put strong or odd odors at the end, and gentle odors at the start. If the oil has no odor at all, it is better somewhere in the middle- if it is greasy it may coat your palate, masking the delicate flavors of other oils.
When sipping the oil, take a very small amount and draw in some air through the molars while holding the oil on your tongue. This will create an emulsion, a sort of mayonnaise, providing better contact with your taste buds by overcoming the natural conflict between oil and water (saliva). Hold the oil for a moment in the mouth and then swallow. You want to pay attention to two things:
1. Bitterness- Perceived primarily at the back of your tongue. This is a positive attribute (remember that EVO is the natural juice of a bitter fruit). The goal is a pleasant bitterness (this is a kind of “oliveness”, and not a harsh, tannic bitterness).
2. Pungency- Felt in your throat as a little hot, pepperiness. Again, it can be very nice, either spicy or gentle, but not too aggressive.
In this moment, the important question is: Is this oil harmonious, balanced?
TIP #2, for recognizing different qualities of oils: When the oil leaves your mouth, the taste sensation has to remain clean, free from unpleasant residues such as greasiness, soapiness, metallic flavors, rancidity, astringency, hard bitterness. Old olive oils and industrially produced oils tend to leave a greasy sensation as well as other off-flavors, most noticeable after you swallow, by slightly smacking your lips and letting air into your mouth.
Between each oil, it’s a good idea to rest and clean your palate with water or a piece of neutral tasting bread (not sourdough, better a sweet baguette) or a piece of tart apple. You can also take this time to write down your impressions of the oils to share with others at the end of the tasting. As in a wine tasting, etiquette calls for silence until everybody has finished tasting, in order not to unintentionally influence others. Although you can find different charts and scales to measure olive oils against, you may take more pleasure just by keeping it simple, and considering the aromas and tastes you find as either: light, medium or intense.
Remember that when you try oil in this way, you are singling out, and concentrating on the characteristics, in order to understand the profile of the oil. At first, the oils may appear to be too strong for you, though soon you’ll get use to that intensity during a tasting. Don’t worry if you cough a bit, sometimes oils are jokingly described as 1-cough, 2-cough, or 3-cough oils. Keep in mind that olive oil is meant to go with food and then, if well matched, it will be entirely enjoyable, as a whole condiment in itself or enhancing flavors.
Right after the tasting, you can do something interesting by just taking a simple food like a lentil or vegetable soup, toasted bread with garlic, eggs, potatoes, garbanzo beans, etc, and try them first without one of the olive oils and then with it. You can also try the different oils from your sampling to see which one matches the food better, or simply, which one you like better with this or that food.
We hope you have fun and enjoy learning about olive oil!