Unraveling the mysteries of olive oil
April 23, 2014
There are few dishes that Steve Lewis doesn't think can be improved with a dash of olive oil. You can use it in baking, you can drizzle it over pound cake. He stirs some into savory oatmeal. It's even delicious over ice cream, he claims.
We should point out that Lewis sells and imports olive oil for a living and that the Denver-based Giuliana Imports culls only the best quality artisan oils from Mediterranean locales known for their unique products.
Still, his bias doesn't change the fact that the world is catching onto the olive oil craze. It's one of the fastest growing segments of the global food industry, showing steady growth every year. According to a 2013 study on the global olive oil market from Research and Markets, an international data and research company, Americans are especially fond of the aromatic oil. According to the report, the U.S. is the third largest consumer of olive oil, behind Spain and Italy.
Lewis said he's seen a steadily growing demand for artisan olive oil and predicted that in a few years, foodies will be discussing olive oil the way they discuss wine. In fact, some restaurants already offer an olive oil list. Diners can choose from a number of artisan oils to put the finishing touch on their entrées.
"Great olive oils have just as much to bring to the table as great wines," Lewis said.
But despite olive oil's popularity, there's a lot the everyday cook (or diner) doesn't know about it.
"We feel that people don't understand how to really use it to finish dishes, to really be able to pour it on and use it in a way you like," Lewis said.
At a recent Taste of Vail seminar, Lewis gave a roomful of foodies a primer on the Mediterranean staple. Read on, and you might never think of olive oil the same way again.
Not all olive oil is created equal
There's a reason that 98 percent of olive oil that comes from the Mediterranean — they've been producing it there for thousands of years. Even then, according to Lewis, the quality varied greatly depending on how it was produced. The finest oil comes from the best of the harvest from very green olives. The olives are crushed and smashed with grinding stones, pit and all. From there, the resulting mush goes through several extraction processes to separate the oil droplets, leaving behind a leftover paste.
What most shoppers don't know is that most low-end olive oil comes from that leftover paste. The pastes are processed with chemicals that extract the remaining oil, then the oil is refined so that it will have a long shelf life.
"Most of what you buy in the supermarket for $5 a liter is mass produced," Lewis said. "Often it's very refined. Sometimes you can get a good product. High-quality oil is more like fresh olive juice."
So how do you find a decent bottle? Because labeling standards are hazy, Lewis said he recommends finding a reputable seller or to try different oils to find what you like.
Oils have unique flavors
Think that all good oil tastes alike? Think again. While many mass-produced oils have been stripped of their flavors in the refining process, artisan oils can taste wildly different. One might taste like a tart green tomato, while another might be buttery and creamy. Another might have a particularly peppery kick at the end, the result of the healthy polyphenols present in the oil.
Labels can be misleading
Unfortunately, the United States does not have strict laws about how olive oil is labeled. Oil labeled "cold pressed" is meant to imply the temperature at which the oil was obtained, but in the U.S. there are no regulations about using these terms, so it often doesn't mean much.
Similarly, Lewis scoffs at the labels "virgin" or "extra virgin." Virgin means that the oil was made from olives and not through a synthetic chemical process. That's definitely a good thing, but the U.S. doesn't regulate the use of those terms either.
"It's kind of a silly term, and the definition has nothing to do with quality," Lewis said.
Lastly, the color of olive oil won't tell you much about the oil. Especially with mass-produced oils, manufacturers will often add chlorophyll or dyes to correct the color.
How to cook with it
Olive oil isn't made for high heat. That's why it's a great oil to use as a finish — pour a dab on your meats after cooking drizzle it over bread or use it to top of your soups and vegetables for some extra flavor.
That doesn't mean you can't use it on your skillet — you just have to be careful. Most mass-produced oils can withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees, but fresher oil will burn at temperatures closer to 350 or 400 degrees. The trick is to slowly raise the temperature and put the food on it before the oil gets too hot.
Store it right
Olive oil should be stored in cool place away from light. Look for oils packaged in dark glass to protect from light damage.
A bottle can usually keep on the shelf for about a year, but once opened, fresh oils are only good for about 30 to 90 days before it starts to spoil and lose its flavors.
"If you have a bottle of good oil, don't hold onto it," said Lewis. "I have clients who say they got some great bottle from Tuscany, so they use it slowly over several years. But it doesn't really keep."
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