How to find the best extra-virgin olive oil 9/12
(This article is adapted from the September 2012 Consumer Reports magazine.)
Many "extra-virgin" olive oils, including some big names, don’t taste good enough to merit that description. By definition, extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to be flawless, but only the top nine of the 23 products Consumer Reports experts tried were free of flaws. More than half tasted fermented or stale. Two even tasted a bit like...let’s just say a barnyard. That problem can occur if oil is stored in vats containing sediment that has begun to ferment.
You may not be able to easily spot a dud. Most people don’t sip olive oil straight from a glass, as the experts did, and foods can mask imperfections. In addition, many consumers assume that olive oil should be a liquid version of the fruit they put in a salad or martini. Wrong. Superior oils are fresh and fragrant, with complex flavors of ripe and unripe fruit, grass, herbs, nuts, or butter, for starters.
If you’re used to a particular product, you might not realize what you’re missing until you do your own side-by-side comparison. It’s like learning to appreciate and enjoy fine wine.
Consumer Reports tests show that you don’t need to buy oil with an Italian heritage to experience the best. California, which produces about 3 percent of the olive oil consumed in the U.S., is the source of the only two products judged Excellent: McEvoy Ranch (grown on a 550-acre property in Petaluma) and Trader Joe’s California Estate oil ("crafted to our specifications from the first press of Arbequina olives grown on estate ranches in the Sierra foothills"), which costs far less than McEvoy: 35 cents per ounce compared with $1.73.
Six other oils were rated Very Good and three of those also have a California pedigree. (The complete article and Ratings are available to subscribers.)
What’s "extra-virgin," anyway?
In Europe, the International Olive Council (IOC), chartered by the United Nations, establishes standards and works to ensure that products labeled "extra-virgin," the highest grade of oil, live up to their billing; the countries do the policing. According to the IOC, extra-virgin olive oil must meet strict chemical and organoleptic (taste and smell) standards, including low levels of acidity and ultraviolet-light absorption. (High levels suggest poor processing or deterioration.) Extra-virgin oil must also be extracted from mashed fruit by mechanical means, not through the use of heat or chemicals, which can reduce flavor. It should have at least some fruitiness and be free of defects in flavor and aroma.
Lower grades include "virgin," which is allowed some sensory flaws and higher acidity; "pure" or "plain," a blend of virgin and refined olive oils (refined has been treated with heat or chemicals); and "pomace olive oil", obtained by treating ground pits and leftover flesh with solvents, and generally used in soap-making, frying, and industry. Another variety, "light," refers to color, not calories or fat. It’s essentially flavorless.
European companies that sell products in the U.S. aren’t bound by IOC rules, and the organization doesn’t inspect those imports. Oils made in America and imports can simply call themselves extra virgin. The Food and Drug Administration usually steps in only when olive oil mislabeling involves adulteration. (Some sellers have been known to spike extra-virgin oil with cheaper oils and palm them off on wholesalers.)
In 2010 the Department of Agriculture adopted standards similar to the IOC’s, but they’re voluntary. Producers, distributors, and importers can choose to participate in the agency’s Quality Monitoring Program to verify the flavor, aroma, and purity of their oils. Products that pass muster receive a seal that can be displayed on packaging. To ensure that quality is maintained, the USDA says it will make surprise visits to plants to gather samples for ongoing testing.
The North American Olive Oil Association, a trade group, has a testing and certification program of its own, based on the IOC’s criteria. Approved products can display a "certified quality" seal, but four of the tested oils with that seal didn’t taste extra virgin in the opinion of the experts.
A healthy fat
More than half of U.S. households keep olive oil on hand, up from 30 percent just five years ago, according to the North American Olive Oil Association, an industry group. (Americans still consume far less than people of other nations: about 1 liter per person each year, compared with 13 liters for Italians and 24 for Greeks.)
Health is a main reason for its popularity. Olive oil consists mostly of monounsaturated fatty acids. A diet that emphasizes monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (in low-mercury fish such as salmon, pollock, and tilapia; some plants; and nut oils) rather than saturated fats and trans fats (think butter and stick margarine) may lower the risk of heart disease. For instance, monounsaturated fats may reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and normalize blood clotting, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some research shows that those fats may improve insulin levels and help control blood sugar, a goal for people with type 2 diabetes. Olive oil also contains antioxidants, thought to protect the body from certain diseases. But consume it in moderation. Olive oil has 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, the same as in other oils.
How to choose, how to use
You can deep-fry or stir-fry in olive oil, use it in sauces, dip bread in it, or mix it into salads, entrées—even ice cream. Consider buying two olive oils: one for cooking and the other for drizzling.
Cook in it. It’s a waste to fry with an expensive olive oil. High heat can destroy subtle flavors. Any inexpensive oil rated Very Good or even Good should be fine. You could even consider a non-virgin olive oil, though we found minimal price differences between that and extra-virgin. Decoding olive oil labels
Drizzle it. Unlike neutral vegetable oils, olive oil imparts its own character to a dish, so think of it as a seasoning. Extra-virgin oils have nuances you won’t find elsewhere. Some people may be startled by a sharp, peppery bite from a robust oil, such as McEvoy Ranch, which stands up to red meat, salad, and cheese. The mellower Lucini, with a citrus note, might pair better with delicate fish. But there are no rules. Try a few olive oils to find what you like.
Keep it fresh. An unopened container of a high-quality olive oil may stay fresh for up to two years after it’s packed, though there will be a gradual falloff in flavor even if the bottle remains sealed. Once it’s opened, you can store olive oil, tightly capped, for months in any cool, dark place. (Heat, light, and air can degrade the taste of olive oil and possibly its nutrients.)
Oil can be refrigerated if you don’t use it often. It will liquefy quickly at room temperature. Oil will keep better in glass than in plastic, and the darker the bottle, the better. If you transfer oil from its container into a smaller bottle or dish for serving, don’t pour fresh oil on top of old, which increases the risk of rancidity.
Every label tells a story, but that story can be a mystery. Here’s how to interpret what’s on the bottle.
Country of origin. Italian-sounding brands dominate store shelves, and many people assume that the best oils come from Italy. Companies play off that assumption, so read labels carefully. Bertolli’s main label, for example, says "Imported from Italy"; the back, in minuscule type, reveals that the product may contain olives from eight countries, including Italy. If heritage matters to you—and the tests show that it shouldn’t—look for clear statements such as those used by Colavita: "Obtained exclusively from olives harvested and pressed in Italy."Related links
Acidity. You may see an acidity number on the label; the lower the number, the better the flavor. To be called extra-virgin, the Department of Agriculture says, oil must have a free-fatty-acid content, expressed as oleic acid, of no more than 0.8 percent per 100 grams. Many factors affect acidity levels, including the maturity of the fruit, harvesting and pressing practices, cleanliness of the presses, and whether the olives were picked off the ground or from the tree.
First cold press. The term harks back to a time when olives were crushed under huge stone wheels, the paste was then spread across mats, and mechanical pressure was applied to squeeze out the oil. That procedure has been replaced by more high-tech and hygienic techniques, though some producers still incorporate stones in sophisticated machinery. As for "cold," all extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olive paste produced through "cold" or mechanical means, without the use of heat or chemicals. The claim is meaningless.
Color. Among olive oil’s many hues: pale yellow, almost honey gold, deep yellow-green, and bright green. Color isn’t linked to quality, but it can hint at an oil’s general character. A golden hue suggests the use of ripe olives, which tends to result in nutty, buttery, or fresh, flowery notes. Green signals fruit that’s not fully mature, which may convey a sharp, bitter (in a good way) taste reminiscent of fresh-cut grass, unripe banana, tart apple, or other herbs and vegetables.
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