An Introduction to Olive Oil Tasting
By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne
A brief primer on olive oil tasting. Outlines official tasting technique and what to look for in an extra virgin olive oil. Originally published in Olive Oil Times.
With all the discussion of the shenanigans going on in the olive oil trade, it’s easy for a consumer to feel suspicious and completely lost. It’s almost enough to make you want to pick up some canola oil instead. Don’t! Finding real extra virgin olive oil is absolutely worth the effort. Here are a couple of articles that will help you get started in your quest for authentic extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil quality has been prominent in the news recently, with headlines telling us that our extra virgin olive oil might not really be extra virgin. A pall of suspicion has been cast over the kitchen cupboard; how are we to know if that pretty bottle of olive oil has been lying about its extra virgin status? What’s a consumer to do?
It is true that there is some serious hanky panky going on in the ranks of extra virgin olive oil. The issues of adulteration, mislabeling and regulation are all real, complex and very important. That does not mean, however, that there is no hope for olive oil consumers until all these big issues are resolved. On the contrary, by learning a little, consumers can benefit a lot.
The logical place for an olive oil education to start is with tasting. All the reading in the world isn’t going to mean a thing unless you can connect it to the sensory experience—the aroma and taste of olive oil. Professional olive oil tasters sip the oil straight from little blue glasses that look like votive candleholders from your favorite café. Although ultimately we must remember that olive oil is an ingredient in food, tasting it straight does have the advantage of giving you a completely undisguised taste of the oil. Don’t be scared. A little sip of olive oil won’t hurt you—it’s actually very nice once you get used to the idea—and it will help you learn to recognize characteristics without the complication of other flavors.
The aromas of olive oil are a critical part of its flavor. The best way to appreciate them is to pour a little bit of olive oil (a tablespoon or two) into a small wineglass (or nifty little blue tasting glass if you have it). Cup the glass in one hand and cover it with the other to trap the aromas inside while you warm it up. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute or two. Then stick your nose into the glass and take a good whiff of the aroma or “nose” of the olive oil. You may notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, cinnamon, tropical fruits or other aromas of ripe or green olive fruit. This is a good time to point out that the word “fruity” in olive oil can refer to vegetable notes, i.e. green olive fruit, as well as to ripe fruit notes. So think of artichokes, grass and herbs as “fruit” when you taste olive oils!
Now take a sip of the oil. Don’t be too wimpy about it; if you don’t get a decent amount you won’t appreciate all the qualities of the oil because it is only getting on the tip of your tongue. You ideally want to get the impressions of the entire mouth and tongue. Suck air through the oil to coax more aromas out of it, and then—this is important—close your mouth and breath out through your nose. This “retronasal” perception will give you a whole bunch of other flavor notes. Retronasal perception is possible because your mouth connects to your nose in the back. This was dramatically illustrated when your little brother laughed at the dinner table with milk in his mouth and it came out his nose. Now swallow some, or all, of the oil.
Pungency is a peppery sensation, detected in the throat, so swallowing some oil is important. Pungency is a positive characteristic of olive oil. It is a chemical irritation, like the hotness of chilies, and equally appealing once you get used to it. Once you start to get into that spicy kick, it is hard to imagine life without it. Pungency can be very mild—just the tiniest tingle—or it can be intense enough to make you cough. Olive oil aficionados will sometimes refer to a one, two, or look out, a three-cough oil.
The third of the three positive attributes of olive oil, in addition to fruity and pungent, is bitter. Bitterness, like pungency, is also an acquired taste. As anyone who has ever tasted an olive right off the tree can attest, bitter is a prominent taste in fresh olives. Curing olives for the table, in fact, has to start with a debittering process. Since olive oil is made from uncured olives, varying degrees of bitterness can be found; oil made from riper fruit will have little to no bitterness, oil made from greener fruit can be distinctly bitter. American taste horizons are broadening; we are exploring bitterness with foods like dark chocolate, bitter salad greens and now, robust olive oils.
The fruity characteristics you may notice in the mouth include nutty, buttery and other ripe flavors, and a fuller spectrum of green fruity notes. Another characteristic that is most pronounced in this retronasal perception, is rancidity—we will explore that when we look at the common defects of olive oil in another article. The traditional palate cleanser between olive oils, is water, plain or sparkling, and slices of Granny Smith apple.
Once you have tasted an olive oil plain, the next step is to taste it in combination with food. This is where olive oil comes to life, as one of the flavors in a dish. Wine presents a good analogy: a wine that is great with food might not be appropriate as an aperitif. Olive oil is the same: sometimes an olive oil that seems over-the-top pungent and bitter by itself or with bread, is perfection itself when used to top a hearty bean soup.
Pairing olive oils and foods is an entire discussion of its own, but for a great learning experience, try three different olive oils—one delicate, one medium, one robust—with a variety of items. Good choices are warm boiled potatoes, fresh mozzarella, ripe tomatoes, bread, warm cooked white beans, salad greens, seasonal cooked vegetables, grilled steak, poached or grilled chicken; pretty much whatever is for dinner! Cook things simply, without a lot of added seasonings, but be sure you have some sea salt on hand.
Now taste pieces of the same food dipped in each of the oils. Notice how the flavors interact. Is it a harmonious mix? A contrast? Does one flavor overwhelm the other, or do they balance well? This is a fun thing to do with a group of friends: you can taste together and compare impressions. Add a couple of wines—a red and a white—to complete the pairings, and you have yourself a dinner party!
When Good Oil Goes Bad: Recognizing Rancidity
By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne
A look at the common problems you are likely to encounter in The Pretenders: those Ersatz Extra Virgins that are unfortunately common on the supermarket shelf. Originally published in Olive Oil Times.
The joy of olive oil lies in its many delightful aromas and flavors—from voluptuous ripe olive to bright green grassy notes and from a soft subtle finish to a zippy peppery kick—there is a world of sensory exploration awaiting the adventurer. But like any great explorer, you will be faced with risks—crocodiles in those placid waters. This is an introduction to the most common defects you will find in olive oil: what they are called, what causes them, and how to recognize their presence.
Any discussion of defects must start with rancidity. The sad truth is that most people in the US are accustomed to the flavor of rancid olive oil. Olive oil is no longer an occasional presence in the kitchen, or a fringe product, so it is time to change that. We need to start by recognizing one essential fact about olive oil: it is a perishable product. Olive oil tastes best when it is fresh. Think of olive oil on a freshness continuum that goes from just-made, harvest-fresh at one end, to completely rancid at the other. How long it takes an olive oil to go from one end of this freshness continuum to the other depends on many factors: storage temperature, exposure to air and light, and the amount of natural antioxidants in the olive oil in the first place. All olive oils, even the finest ones, will get rancid eventually. This is why you must never hoard olive oil: use it and enjoy it. Waiting for a special occasion to use your good olive oil? How about dinner?!
Do you have a clear sense of what rancid oil smells and tastes like? A good image for many people is the smell of crayons. Another helpful item—something that almost everyone has tasted—is rancid nuts. Rancid is fat gone bad, something all of us have encountered at some time. On a rancid scale of 0 to 10, almost everyone will notice a 9 or a 10. The trick is to develop the confidence to pick out rancidity when it is a 5, or a 3, or lower. The flavor of rancidity in olive oil is usually accompanied by a greasy mouthfeel; in fact, the greasiness often is noticeable first.
Go to your cupboard and pull out the olive oil. How old is it? Is there a “Best By” date? Generally that date is two years from the time that it was bottled. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always tell you when it was harvested and milled. A harvest date is the most reliable indicator since it tells you when the olive oil was actually made. Sniff it. Taste it. Crayons? Putty? Old peanuts? Don’t feel bad about throwing out old olive oil, feel good about it! Don’t be surprised if the purge of your pantry includes not just old olive oil but things like old whole wheat flour (which gets rancid because of the oils in the wheat germ), crackers and cereals.
A general rule of thumb is that olive oil is best consumed within a year of harvest. Most oils, if unopened and stored in a cool dark place, will still be good for up to two years, but they steadily lose the fresh fruitiness that you want in olive oil. Greener harvest, robust olive oils will keep better than delicate ripe ones because of the higher content of compounds called polyphenols in earlier harvest oils. You can recognize the presence of these polyphenols because they contribute pepperiness and bitterness to the flavor of an oil. If an oil is delicate and soft, made from ripe olives, then you will want to use it quickly, within six months, or a year at the most.
The second most common defect of olive oil is called “fusty.” It is caused by fermentation in the absence of oxygen; this occurs within the olives before they are milled. This is why it is so important for olives to be processed into oil within as short a time as possible after harvest. Olives left to sit in bags, bins or piles for even a few days will produce fusty olive oil.
And what does fusty smell and taste like? Unfortunately, the answer for a lot of people is “olive oil.” For many people, both in the US and abroad, fusty flavors in olive oil are the norm. When I was undergoing the process of training for the olive oil taste panel, I remember vividly the day when I poured my usual supposedly extra virgin olive oil into a warm skillet and was enveloped by the smell of fustiness. After the initial shock and shame, I threw out that bottle and never looked back. Now I know that olive oil smells like fresh green or ripe olives, and that the smell I always associated with olive oil was in fact the smell of fermented olives. It’s difficult to come up with a single descriptor for the fusty smell, but here are some things that might help: sweaty socks, swampy vegetation, or too-wet compost heap. A good way to taste an example of the fusty defect involves table olives. Look through a batch of Kalamata-style olives and see if you can find any that are not purple or maroon-black and firm, but instead are brown and mushy. Eat one. THAT is the flavor of fusty.
Rancid and fusty are by far the most common defects of olive oil. Occasionally you may run into a winey-vinegary defect. This is caused by fermentation with oxygen present, and can be reminiscent of vinegar or nail polish. Another defect that crops up once in a while is musty. Caused by moldy olives, it tastes of dusty, musty old clothes, or the basement floor.
How does a shopper put their knowledge of this chamber of horrors to use? Olive oil shopping is a topic for another article, but here are a few things to do right away. Start with freshness. Look for dates on olive oil bottles. Try local producers if you are lucky enough to live in an area where olive oil is made. Learn as much as you can about the grower. Whenever possible, taste before you buy. And if you open a bottle and find out that it’s rancid, return it. An ethical producer will do everything they can to get a quality product to you, but they lose control once the bottle is out there in the distribution chain. Buy from people you trust. By paying more attention to the flavors of olive oil, and experimenting in your kitchen and at the table, you will discover the amazing diversity of this wonderful food. Let knowledge and experience embolden you; damn the crocodiles—full speed ahead!
Where To Find Good Olive Oil
Disclaimer: This is a highly personal, utterly incomplete list.
I’m an independent olive oil consultant and taster, and yes, some of the producers I mention will be people I have worked with. Many will not be. Most of them are people I know personally. All of them I respect as ethical and excellent business people and/or producers. If you think your company belongs on this list, please email me. The list is a work-in-progress. I will add to it as I have time, but it seems important to get some resources out there for starters.
Support your local olive oil producer In a perfect world, you have a local olive mill where a passionate, meticulous miller makes fabulous oil. If you are so blessed, support that company; they need your business! For many people, however, that is not the case. For practicality, I am starting this list with a handful of companies that have web/mail order resources, but there are many brick and mortar shops all over the country that sell good olive oil, allowing you to taste it first.
Beyond the Olive is a small retail shop in Pasadena, CA that specializes in California olive oil. They carry a number of oils from very small California artisan producers and sell online. If you can visit, they have in-store tasting.
Corti Brothers in Sacramento, CA is legendary in the fine food and wine world. Darrell Corti’s encyclopedic knowledge and excellent palate make him a mentor to many of California’s producers. They sell online, but a trip to the store is a must if you are ever in Sacramento. Corti Bros sells some of my favorite imported oils, like Castillo de Canena from Spain, and Cobram Estate Reserve from Australia. They also have some excellent artisan California oils, like Regina, Frantoio Grove, and many more.
McEvoy Ranch is one of the best-known artisan producers in California. Certified organic, pioneers of the industry, and they sell their great oil (and other products) online.
City Olive in Chicago is a specialty olive oil and vinegar shop with two locations featuring a wonderful collection of estate-produced olive oils from around the world. Get on their mailing list to be informed of their frequent “Meet the Producer” events. They do mail order.
St. Helena Olive Oil Company in the Napa Valley is a charming place to taste great olive oils. They carry one of my local favorites, Talcott from the Carneros region, as well as a slew of others. They have an online store.
To be continued…