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September 12, 2019

Experts' Experts: The murky world of olive oil — "It's an ingredient, not a condiment"

From the New York Times:

When extra-virgin olive oil arrived in American kitchens around 1980, a set of myths came with it.

You can't use it for everyday cooking.

You can't use it for deep-frying.

You must hoard your best stuff and bring it out only for occasional drizzling.

None of those turns out to be true: Olive oil is an excellent all-purpose cooking oil, but at the time it was too expensive for cooks to use freely.

In the meantime, the price has fallen, but global demand has grown far beyond supply, and the entire business has been transformed by technology, global trade, and climate change.

It has also been racked by fraud, with millions of consumers around the world regularly paying for "extra-virgin" olive oil that is cut with inferior olive oil, mixed with cheaper oils like sunflower and canola, or colored with chlorophyll or beta carotene.

Labeling has become a minefield, despite efforts by the European Union, where a majority of the world’s oil is produced, to enforce rules and make meaningful distinctions among terms like "made in Italy," "imported from Italy" and "packed in Italy."

The European Union’s system of food certification(appearing as a D.O.P. or P.D.O. seal on a label) is relatively reliable.

But the terms "extra-virgin" (meaning the very first pressing), "first-press," and "cold-pressed" are not as helpful as they used to be, as most producers have switched over from presses to modern centrifuges that produce purer and cleaner oils.

So now we are back in the realm of myth, as labels are ever harder to interpret and trust.

For most of the olive oil on the American market today, even a truthful label says little about how it will taste or whether you will like it.

More than the flags on the bottle, more than the varietal, more than whether the oil appears grass-green or butter-yellow, many experts and producers now say the biggest factor in the deliciousness of olive oil is its freshness.

Assuming that the olives are healthy and of good quality, how quickly they go from tree to bottle to your cupboard may determine more about the taste of your olive oil than anything on the label (though oil labeled "extra-virgin" is still likely to be better than oil without that designation).

Olive oil is perishable, sensitive to light and heat, and begins to degrade as soon as it is exposed to oxygen, just as an apple starts to turn brown as soon as it is cut and the process of spoilage begins.

It is not like wine, improving with age, or like vinegar, which can last for years without a substantial change in flavor.

Once opened, a bottle of olive oil retains its peak flavor for three to four weeks.

"Olive oil belongs in the produce section, not on a shelf," said Nicholas Coleman, a trained olive oil taster and the former olive oil specialist for Eataly USA. "It’s closer to a raw juice than a cooking oil," he added, pointing out that most cooking oils — like canola and safflower — are pressed from seeds and nuts, not fruit.

Understanding olive oil as a perishable product has two lessons for home cooks.

One, we should try to choose olive oil according to how fresh it is; it should be consumed within two years of bottling.

Two, we should be using much more of it, so that it doesn't languish in our cupboards, but is used up and replaced while it is fresh and vibrant.

"There’s a saying about olive oil: 'Pour it with the elbow up high,'" said Lior Lev Sercarz, whose company, La Boîte, supplies top New York chefs with fresh spices and custom seasoning blends.

His family produces their own annual supply of olive oil on a small farm in northern Israel.

"Don't use it sparingly," said Mr. Coleman, who sells fine olive oil to restaurants and to quarterly subscribers through his website, Grove and Vine.

He said American cooks fear that using olive oil plentifully will make a dish taste flat or greasy.

Instead, he says, its natural herbaceousness accents flavors, as do lemon and salt.

"When it tastes great and has vibrancy and cleanliness and burn," he said, "it's going to heighten and evolve that dish, elongate it and enhance it."

In European countries like Greece, Italy and Spain, the average person consumes about 20 liters of olive oil each year. (Americans go through less than one liter each.)

Greek horiatiki salad of tomatoes and cucumbers might be dressed with lashings of olive oil, tossed with olive-oil-toasted croutons, and topped with olive oil-seared slices of halloumi cheese.

Contrary to what many American cooks have been led to believe, good oil should not be held in reserve for a little drizzling here and there, but used for all kinds of everyday cooking and for deep-frying.

It has a smoke point of about 400 degrees, well above the 350- to 375-degree heat required for deep-frying.

"Everyone is always horrified watching me pour the stuff, because I use so much more than a normal American cook," said Frank Prisinzano, a chef with three Italian restaurants in Manhattan who makes frequent trips to Italy to taste olive oil, prosciutto, and other raw materials at the source. "When you use a lot, you get the kaleidoscope of olive flavors in the dish. It opens up more complexity."

Calling from the Adriatic coast, he said the best summer dishes in Italy, simple plates of seafood dressed with just lemon juice and olive oil, are always served lukewarm, or tiepido. "Olive oil should never see the inside of a refrigerator," he said. "The flavor gets dumbed down."

Until recently, like many Americans, Aishwarya Iyer had no idea that olive oil was perishable.

A veteran of finance technology and cosmetics marketing, Ms. Iyer moved from New York City to Los Angeles in 2016, hoping for a healthier lifestyle and a more rewarding route to entrepreneurship.

She certainly did not expect to start a boutique olive oil brand, much less have it picked up by Goop.com, where two 375-milliliter bottles of Brightland sell for $74.

"I'm so happy to have found something I have a passion for that isn’t just about making another app," she said.

As a vegetarian and enthusiastic cook, Ms. Iyer said chronic stomach problems forced her to examine her diet closely; she suspects rancid oil was a culprit.

It is hard for an average consumer to tell if olive oil is rancid, the scientific term for spoiled fats.

Rancid oil can smell soapy, fishy or stale; professionals use terms like musty, fusty and winy to describe oil tainted with mold and fermentation.

It can taste tannic, a flavor that many consumers confuse with the pepperiness associated with fresh oil.

But anyone can determine whether olive oil is fresh.

Heat it in a pan, or pour it over a bowl of soup: When warmed, fresh oil smells like olives.

There may be notes of asparagus or artichoke, more or fewer echoes of fresh-cut grass, but the fruitiness should be front and center.

Ms. Iyer became so absorbed by the differences between fresh and stale olive oil, she said, that she was convinced others would care as well.

Step by step, working with California growers, she chose an olive varietal (Cortina), a package (thick, white-coated glass), and a label (bearing the month and year of harvest) that reflected her priorities.

Most large producers do not yet label with the date of harvest.

Small producers, especially those who command the very highest prices, usually do.

European producers must provide a "best used by" date on the label, usually two years from bottling, but there is no requirement to disclose how old the oil was when it was bottled.

The United States Department of Agriculture does not require any date labeling for olive oil, even a "best by" or "sell by" date.

The best way to ensure you are buying fresh oil is simply to find a brand with date-labeling that you trust, and stick with it.

At California Olive Ranch, based in Chico, Calif., all bottles are date-labeled, and all olives are pressed within eight hours of harvest, said Jim Lipman, the company’s head of agricultural technology.

Even during that eight-hour window, the fruit is constantly temperature-controlled and monitored for respiration and other signs of decay.

Since the company was founded in 1998, its commitment to a controlled supply chain and to using only California-grown olives has been part of its extremely successful brand; it is now the largest producer in the United States.

Last year, because of a disastrous olive crop, the company began to import oil from outside the state for the first time.

Mr. Lipman said the new suppliers, in Portugal, Argentina, and elsewhere, meet the same standards of production.

But ensuring freshness is not easy.

Like a crate of apples with one bruised fruit, a tub with thousands of olives is likely to contain a few with bruises or fungus or cracks, where spoilage can begin immediately and proceed quickly.

"Once any reaction starts, it doesn't stop," Mr. Lipman said.

Mr. Sercarz, the spice merchant, says his father, Moshe, is even more of a stickler for freshness.

Even if it means taking olives to the mill at midnight, he does not let them wait more than five hours after being picked before being pressed.

That is why the oil has such pungency and power, the younger Mr. Sercarz said.

"If you think about olive oil as something you choose the same way you choose produce, for freshness and quality, your life will change," he said.

Even in desserts, he said, he prefers olive oil to butter, which is delicious in its own right but can muffle other flavors like spice and citrus.

The olive oil cake in his new cookbook, "Mastering Spice," spiked with orange, cardamom, and black pepper, makes a persuasive argument that olive oil deserves a bigger role in our cooking.

"It is an ingredient, not a condiment," he said.

September 12, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


Good post. Informative. Enjoyed it. More, please.

Posted by: antares | Sep 13, 2019 10:20:10 AM

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