We’ve all heard that olive oil is good for us, but does that account for its surge in popularity? Supermarkets have entire shelves dedicated to different types of olive oils. In fact, olive oil production and sales is one of the fastest-growing global industries.
Why the oil boom? I set out to learn more about it and how to buy, store and use good-quality olive oil.
High in monounsaturated fat (the good kind) and polyphenols (an antioxidant), olive oil in moderation can have health benefits like lowering the risk of heart disease, according to published studies.
You can find “liquid gold” throughout much of Europe, as well as parts of South America and in California, which has a relatively small production but a Tuscan-like climate that results in a somewhat fruity olive oil.
Spain is the world’s No. 1 exporter of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece; however, Italy and Greece produce higher volumes of extra-virgin olive oil than Spain. And the Greeks like to keep much of their oil for themselves, with Greek exports only accounting for 11 percent of the worldwide olive-oil market.
Pietro Morelli recently opened Made in Italy Gourmet in Miami’s Wynwood district, specializing in Italian food and top-quality imported products, including several types of olive oil.
“Tasting olive oil is like tasting wine,” said Marco Todoerti, Made in Italy’s store manager. “The region, land and climate make the difference.”
Also, personal taste matters.
“The best olive oil in the world is produced in Italy,” according to Nancy Harmon Jenkins, an authority on Mediterranean cuisine and author of the new Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil.
Her reason? Italian olive oils are not mass-produced. The farms — like the one she lives on part of the year in Tuscany — are small, with hands-on harvests and workers who take special care in the production.
When choosing an olive oil, determine what flavor profiles you like, whether it’s an assertive olive flavor, a little bitter-peppery aftertaste or a mild, buttery finish. On top of flavor preference, you’ll want to avoid oils with musty or rancid characteristics, telltale signs something has gone bad.
Here are some more tips to help find the best bottles for you.
Decoding the labels
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: This is the highest-quality oil and is produced without chemicals or industrial refining. To be labeled extra virgin it must have an acidity of not more than 0.8 percent per 100 grams. It must pass a laboratory test and be evaluated by an International Olive Council tasting panel. Nancy Harmon Jenkins uses this type for all of her recipes, including deep-frying.
Virgin: It often comes from the first pressing, but its acid level is between 1 and 3.3 percent, not low enough to qualify as extra-virgin. This is a good oil to use for cooking.
Olive Oil (sometimes labeled “Pure”): This oil has failed to make the extra-virgin grade, meaning it has been corrected, rectified or refined, creating a flavorless, odorless oil to which a small amount of extra-virgin oil may be added to give some taste and aroma. This is not from a second pressing of the olives. It is a lower grade of olive oil and therefore, cheaper.
Light Olive Oil: This oil is rectified or refined oil with very little aroma or flavor but similar to the olive-oil grade. Light does not mean it is lighter in calories. It’s best used for baking or cooking where you do not want the olive-oil flavor. It also has a high smoking point, making it good for frying.
Pomace Oil (olive-pomace oil): This oil is produced by extracting the small amount of oil remaining in the dregs (pulp, skins and pits) of the olive oil pressing, using solvents. It is then rectified again to make it acceptable for human consumption.
How to buy
Faced with a shelf full of olive oils, it’s important to understand what you are buying and paying for.
• Buy olive oil in dark bottles, boxes or cans. They’re better than clear packaging, which allow light to affect olive oil’s quality.
• Check acid percentages. The lower the acidity means higher-quality olive oil.
• Look for the harvest date. The best extra-virgin olive oil right now was harvested in October, November or December 2014.
• Find the source. European laws require that labels note the olives’ origin and where they were processed. If you see olive oil made from olives sourced all over the Mediterranean, don’t pay a premium for it.
How to store
Place the bottle in a cool, dark cupboard, away from light and heat.
Do not refrigerate olive oil. It can create condensation in the container, which drips into the oil. Mold can develop there.
Stored properly, olive oil can last many months, even up to a year or more. But in South Florida’s heat and humidity, olive oil is likely to turn rancid more quickly.
Bottles to try
Ardoino is from Liquria in northern Italy. It has a delicate, fruity olive flavor that goes well with fish. $20 for a 16.9-ounce bottle.
Laudemio is from Tuscany. It has medium fruitiness with a rounded mouthfeel, balanced with bitterness and fresh aroma. $33 for a 16.9-ounce bottle
Badia a Coltibuono is one of my favorite Tuscan extra-virgin olive oils. It is light with an intense fruity bouquet of olives and has a slight peppery aftertaste. $25 for a 16.9-ounce bottle, $40 for 33.8 ounces.
An award-winning extra-virgin olive oil sold in local markets is Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $16.99 for a 16.9-ounce bottle. The oil is produced in Italy for a Miami-based company.
Summertime Pasta with a Raw Tomato and Olive Oil Sauce
This is a room temperature sauce that warms when tossed with very hot pasta. It’s quick dish and perfect for a hot weather meal.
2 lbs. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped or very thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. crushed red chile pepper (optional)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup olive oil
1 pound spaghetti
Combine the tomatoes, garlic, a teaspoon or so of salt, the chile pepper, if using, 1/3 cup of the basil, and the oil in a large bowl. Cover and set aside at room temperature to marinate for several hours. If you must refrigerate the sauce at any point, be sure to give it plenty of time to come back to room temperature before serving it.
When ready to serve, bring 5 to 6 quarts water to a rolling boil in a pasta pot. Add salt, and when it comes back to a boil, simply add the pasta, cook, drain, turn into a heated serving bowl, and immediately toss with the sauce. Garnish with the remaining 2 tablespoons basil and serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Source: “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins ($30, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
1 1/2-lbs. fresh fish fillets (fresh shrimp or scallops also work)
1 cup combined citrus juices (lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange)
3/4 cup fruity olive oil
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
1 small red onion, minced
1 ripe red tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
2 small fresh jalapeño or Serrano chiles, seeded and minced
Lemon wedges, for serving
Cover the fish fillets with the citrus juice in a bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or overnight. Drain the fish and arrange on a serving platter. Mix together the oil, cilantro, onion, tomato and chiles and spoon over the fish. Cover once more and set aside until ready to serve. Before serving, taste a small piece of fish. You probably will not need to add more acid since the citrus flavors will have penetrated the fish, but serve it with lemon wedges (or limes) in case someone wants to add more. Makes 8 servings as a first course.
Source: “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
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