Olive oil: What are the differences between olive oil varieties?

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How many recipes do you have that call for olive oil? In my repertoire, I'd say 75 percent of my standard dinner recipes call for at least a tablespoon of the stuff. For a long time, I didn't really understand the difference between various olive oils and when it was better to use a more expensive variety versus an everyday variety. I still wouldn't say that I understand all the nuances, but I'm getting better.

Olive oil and bread

The importance of reading the labels

In the grocery store, there are so many choices. There's virgin, extra virgin, pure, 100%, light, cold pressed and many combinations thereof. The titles do have standards associated with them based on how it is produced and relative acidity .... in other countries, that is. In the U.S., which is not a member country of the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), required retail grades of olive oil are much less rarefied. That means any U.S. manufacturer of olive oil can say almost whatever they want. When choosing an olive oil, read the label carefully to know where it was produced and to try to discern whether the terms used on the label are being used within IOOC guidelines or not. Olive oils that adhere to IOOC guidelines follow these standards:

  • Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO): The olives are cold-pressed, the resulting oil has an acidity of no more than 0.8 percent and the flavor is judged to be superior. EVOO olive oil often has a strong, peppery flavor.
  • Virgin olive oil: Acidity is less than 2% and the flavor is judged good.
  • Pure olive oil and olive oil: A blend of virgin oil and refined (chemically treated to neutralize acid and strong flavors) oil.

The "cold-pressed" and "first cold-pressed" indications mean that the oil was produced mechanically without the use of heat (which can alter the flavor) and "first" means just that - the first oil from the first press of the olives. "Light" olive oil is not "lite" olive oil. It is usually all refined olive oil and has less flavor than other olive oils - but, be warned, even though it is "light," it has the same number of calories as other olive oils.

Cooking with the different types of olive oils

When choosing an olive oil, think about the application. If it's just for sauteing vegetables, pure or virgin olive oil is fine. If it's dish in which the oil will be more prominent (such as pasta with potatoes and rosemary, or for salad dressings), the extra virgin olive oil is the way to go. Newer in the olive oil market are flavor-infused olive oils, particularly those infused with fruit flavors. My favorite of those oils are blood orange and citron - both are excellent for salads. When olive oil goes on sale, I stock up. Recently my grocery store was clearing their shelves of a very nice extra virgin variety at 50 percent off. I snapped up three bottles and am set for good salads for a couple months at least. When the large tins of pure olive oil go on sale about once or twice a year, I try to take advantage of that, too. I use it for cooking and for making herbed olive oil for bread dipping (see below). Garlic and herb-infused olive oil Large tin of olive oil. Large glass vessel that can contain the olive oil (and then some) and seals tightly Handfuls of your favorite fresh herbs, on the stems, rinsed and dried. This can include, but is not limited to, basil, rosemary, thyme, and oregano Several large cloves of garlic, peeled Place all the herbs and the garlic in the glass vessel. Pour the olive oil over it and seal tightly. Store in a dark corner of your pantry for about a month, swirling the contents once or twice a week. Strain into another vessel and discard the herbs and garlic. Use for dipping bread or for salad dressing.

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