Olive oils come in a range of varieties, each with a different flavor profile. Learn which ones fit your palate.
Just like wines, olive oils come in a huge array of shades and flavors, depending on the olive varietal or blend of olives that go into them. Most of the types you’ll find in North American grocery stores are pretty bland. This is OK for applications in which heat might destroy the flavor nuances anyway, such as high-heat sautéing. If, on the other hand, the oil’s flavor has the chance to come through in the finished dish — such as in salad dressing or tapenade — you might consider seeking out one of the following single-varietal olive oils.
• Ascolano: Fruity
• Koroneiki: Fruity
• Kalamata: Juicy
• Manzanilla: Assertive
• Coratina: Fruity
• Frantoio: Assertive
• Mission: Grassy to mild
• Farga: Peppery
• Castelvetrano: Spicy
For maximum health and economic benefits, it makes sense to reserve the best pungent extra virgin olive oils for fresh uses: drizzled on cooked foods; used as a dip for bread; or as a salad dressing. For an olive oil dressing, try this classic vinaigrette: Blend 3 parts olive oil with 1 part vinegar or citrus juice. Whisk in a little Dijon mustard — to help the vinaigrette stay in emulsion — and season with salt and pepper. This vinaigrette also works as a marinade.
When it comes to cooking with oil, you may have heard olive oil is unsafe at high temperatures. It is actually a stable cooking oil for high-heat sautés and frying, with a smoke point above 400 degrees (but only real extra virgin olive oil will stand up to higher temperatures). But even if you’re sure of quality, you might choose to cook with more refined oils rather than your priciest, most flavorful ones. Esteemed food scientist Harold McGee compared 15 types of olive, nut and seed oils at high temperatures with a panel of trained judges. “We were surprised at how thoroughly heat obliterated the flavors in cooking oil until they all tasted more or less the same,” McGee writes on his website. “Even prize-winning, and costly, extra virgin olive oils lost much of what makes them special...To get food with the green and fruity flavor of good olive oil, it seems more economical and effective to fry with an inexpensive refined oil and drizzle on a little fresh extra virgin olive oil after cooking.
With any oil, McGee recommends tasting it before you cook with it — every time — so you “learn to taste the difference between good fresh oils and stale or funky ones.” Freshness affects food flavor more than the type of oil you choose. Oils should not taste or smell rancid, metallic, moldy, cooked or like cardboard.
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