From S., 30 December 2009, Finding the best olive oil?
Q: So, what is the best olive oil in the world? And is there really a huge difference between the best and the rest?
A: Happy New Year, and thanks for your questions. What is the “best” olive oil in the world? No single oil qualifies – it’s like asking which of the dozens of varieties of tomatoes is the best. Oils vary widely in flavor and depth, so a lot depends on your personal preferences. As a general matter:
* Spanish oil – depending on the region, may be strong and grassy (Andalucia) or more fruity and nutty (Catalunya); often golden colored. Spain produces more oil than any other country – about 40 to 45 percent of all olive oil.
* Italian oil – depending on the region, may range from light, grassy, and floral (Liguria) to peppery, rich, and bitter (Tuscany, Umbria), to round and fruity (Calabria, Sicily); often quite green
* French oil – tends to taste mild, floral, and round, light yellow-green
* Greek oil – more pronounced olive taste, buttery sensation, and green color
Within these general guidelines, however, flavors vary considerably from one olive-growing estate to another. Some harvest olives earlier, and these tend to be more peppery, zesty, and bitter; others harvest olives later, and these tend to be mellower, fruitier, and richer. So how to decide? Taste the oil if you can before buying. Speciality stores often have oil tasting bars, with bread or crackers, so you can sample the oil. If you can’t taste before you buy, look for a thorough description – Zingerman’s, for example, makes the selection process easy for you by categorizing their oils by country of origin as well as flavor profile. Another one of my favorite online vendors, Cube Marketplace, provides extensive flavor profiling and estate information for each of its oils.
On to your other question – whether there really exists a huge difference between the best and the rest. There is a substantial difference. The best quality oils are smooth and flavorful, and low in acidity. The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) sets quality standards for all oil-producing countries except the United States, which uses different standards. The relevant IOOC standards, for all practical purposes, are:
* Extra-virgin, with acidity under 0.8%, and superior taste, based on standards that assess bitterness, fruitiness, and pepperiness. The oil must be free of any of the sixteen taste defects (which include mustiness, fustiness, and cucumber aromas)
* Virgin, with acidity under 2.0%, and good taste
* Pure olive oil, or simply olive oil, a blend of virgin and refined oil. “Refined” oil generally constitutes olive oil that would fall within the virgin classification except for defects in taste or acidity; through processing, the acidity level is reduced considerably, but taste defects generally are incurable.
Other grades exist, but you would not want to use them for culinary purposes. The relevant USDA standards are:
* Grade A or Fancy, with acidity under 1.4%, and “free from defects”
* Grade B or Choice, with acidity under 2.5%, and “reasonably free from defects”
If you’re selecting an olive oil for use as a condiment or finish – say to serve simply with bread, or to drizzle onto a soup or vegetables – then you’re best off with the extra-virgin oils. They have the most distinctive flavor. Because they are expensive, you don’t need to buy a lot – you’re not deep-frying in these oils, after all. Again, taste before buying if you can.
Two final notes on quality. First, in 2007, the New Yorker reported that costly olive oils from Italy may have been adulterated with lesser quality oils such as canola and soy, and dyed with chlorophyll to simulate the grass-green quality of premium extra-virgin olive oil. Efforts to implement a more precise estate labeling system have stalled, so it is best to taste before buying, or to buy from a known quantity.
Second, estate oils may vary in quality from season to season. Just as last year’s tomato crop might be better than this year’s, changes in olive growing conditions and production quality control may vary. So try to taste more expensive oils before buying, even if you’ve had them before, to be sure you’re getting what you want.