First, a disclaimer: there's no denying that the world of olive oil is complex and this story is a mere dip of the toe into this vast ocean. To further muddy the waters, there's plenty of contradictory information to wade through. Over the years, we've also read reams about the murky olive oil world; olive oils being mangled with adulteration, misleadingly labelled et al. Hopefully, this article will help sift a bit of the wheat from the chaff.
We've always connected olive oils to Italy, but if you can keep your mind (and palate) open, a world of equally delicious olive oils can open up to you. Spanish olive oils are of excellent quality as well and further afield, Portugal and Greece make some good olive oils too. Nor is it just limited to Europe. Listed in 2015's 'World's Best Olive Oils' contest are oils from Egypt, Chile, Uruguay, Japan and Australia. And these are just a handful; Turkey, Syria, California and others make some powerful ones.
Before you start cooking with olive oil, it is a good idea to taste it, much like you would taste wine. Use only about a tablespoon of oil, swirl, smell, sip, taste and then finally swallow. You'll be surprised at the various flavours the oils will release - they can vary from sweet to bitter to peppery to fruity to astringent. A good olive oil should boast of a powerful flavour.
Olive oils are all graded by the level of free oleic acid and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) has the lowest of all. Italians consider it to have the earthiest, strongest olive flavours (it tastes, bitter, spicy, fruity), and use it for most of their cooking.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of 'Virgin Territory: Exploring the world of Olive Oil', writes that extra virgin olive oil is the least processed. "Extra-virgin olive oil should simply be the oily juice of the olive, minus the water also contained within the fruit. It may have been filtered, but it has not been refined."
But what about the kerfuffle over not using extra virgin olive oil for frying? Reams have been written about how its low smoke point (the temperature at which oil begins to break down, burn and smoke, leading to quickly charred food) means that it's a bad idea to use it for cooking.
Tom Mueller, author of the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, disagrees. "Quality extra virgin olive oil is a fine choice for sautéing and shallow frying, so long as its flavour doesn’t overpower the food… (But) refined olive oil is probably a better choice for deep-fat frying, though there are undoubtedly many extra virgin olive oils that hold up well to frying – the lower an oil’s free fatty acidity, the higher its smoke-point," he writes on the website truthinoliveoil.com.
A good quality EVOO can be heated upto about 365˚; most Indian cooking falls between 250˚ to 350˚F, with deep frying going up to 365˚ and more. But extra virgin olive oil is expensive, so you may want to keep it aside for salad dressing and dips, where its determined taste comes through more clearly.
Next you have Light Olive Oil, which has a lighter flavour profile. The term 'light' has nothing to do with its nutritional profile. Light olive oil works well in dips and condiments, such as mayonnaise. But it all comes down to a matter of personal taste; what floats your boat may sink mine.
Olive Oil is made of a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. Again, taste differs wildly across olive oils, depending on which region the olives are born in. Some olive oils are fairly thrusting in their flavour profiles (those from Tuscany, perhaps), others are a mere whisper. Most brands in the market are suitable for Indian cooking and I use them at home for everything from sautéing vegetables to preparing pulaos and parathas - olive oil's smoke point is 420˚F.
Finally, we have Olive-Pomace Oils. According to the International Olive Council, pomace oil is "obtained by treating olive pomace with solvents or other physical treatments, to the exclusion of oils obtained by re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds." Pomace consists of pieces of skin, pulp, stone and olive kernel, left behind after extracting olive oil. It has a very small amount of olive oil which needs to be coaxed out using chemical solvents. According to trade news website, Olive Oil Times, this is the lowest edible grade, used mostly in industrial kitchens. But in India, its feeble flavour is seen as an advantage, as it doesn't interfere with the taste of any masala and its high smoke point makes it easy to fry goodies such as samosas, vadas and pakodas.
The olive is a delicate little thing and starts deteriorating from the time it is plucked (which is why it is important to buy the most recently - pressed olive oil you can find, as opposed to the oil with the latest expiration date).
Keep that in mind when you browse the shelves at your shop for the appropriate olive oil - it oxidises quick as a wink in the sun, so if you have a choice, always pick the oil that is housed in a dark bottle. The colour does not really matter. At home, store it in a cool, dry place and use it up as soon as possible. Olive oil does not age well.
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