a test kitchen dossier
Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.
– Pliny (AD 23-79)
Foodstuff: Olive Oil
Etymology: “Olive” comes from the Greek-influenced Latin word oliva, meaning “olive” or “olive tree.” “Oil” is derived from the Latin oleum, which lead to the Old French oile, meaning “oil” or “olive oil.” Oile referred only to olive oil until the word started to describe any oil-like substance in the 1300s.
Area of Origin: Mediterranean region
Oh, sweet indulgence that is olive oil. Valued since the beginning of civilization for its golden-green hue, pungent taste and supple texture, we continue to celebrate its uniqueness in modern cuisine, and its popularity ever increases. You’ll not hear us complain about this. Its versatility as either a core component of cooking or a decadent liquid for dipping and drizzling makes it one of our all-time pantry favorites.
Olive oil is crafted from the pressing of tree-ripened olives. Olive trees grow best in warm, dry climates, and can grow to be hundreds of years old. According to Italian folklore, olive trees grow best when the following five conditions are present: sun, stone, drought, silence, and solitude. Most olive oil today is made by grinding the ripe olives into a paste and then spinning the paste around at a fast speed in order to separate the oil from the paste. Because of the many slight variations in types of olive (there are more than 75 different kinds), production and growing location and pressing methods, no two olive oils are the same. The oils can have subtle flavors ranging from flowery or spicy to nutty or fruity and everything else in between, and the color of the oil can range from clear to gold to dark green; usually the deeper the color, the stronger the flavor.
First cultivated in the Mediterranean, olive cultivation spread from Crete to Syria, Israel and Palestine, and then onwards to Turkey, Egypt, Southern Italy and Northern Africa, reaching France by around 800 B.C. Olives continued to spread around the world, introduced to the Americas in the 1500s. According to legend, an olive tree growing in Argentina, the Arauco olive tree, was brought over during the Spanish conquest and still stands to this day.
Throughout history, olive oil has held a special place in many societies. The ancient Hebrews used the oil to light their Menorah in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In ancient Greece, olive trees were protected by the law, and farmers were prohibited from cutting down more than two of their olive trees each year. In fact, in ancient Greece and Rome, olive oil was so popular that boats were constructed for the sole purpose of shipping the elixir to different ports around the Mediterranean. The oil was believed to bring strength and youth to those who used it medicinally and cosmetically. The Spartans anointed themselves with olive oil while exercising in order to eroticize and emphasize the male body’s beauty. In odd fashion, the oil was scraped from the bodies of Greek athletes after events and sold as a potent elixir to those desiring the same physical strength as their heroes.
The olive tree has also traditionally been a symbol of peace and abundance, and crowns made from the branches of the olive tree have sat on the heads of great leaders throughout time. Olive branches were offered to gods and powerful humans, and an olive branch was even found in King Tut’s tomb.
Today, olives are grown all over the world in countries as diverse and widespread as China, Australia and Japan. Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives, claiming around forty-five percent of the world’s olive crop, followed closely by Italy and Greece.
An intricate system governs how olive oils are classified. The International Olive Oil Council (IOOC), which reigns over ninety-five percent of international olive oil production, sets the standards of quality that are followed by the main olive oil producing countries. (The United States is not a member of the IOOC and does not legally recognize its classifications.) According to IOOC regulations, the oil is classified by production methods, the chemistry of the oil and its flavor, based on ascending levels of acidity. Following are the grades:
Extra-virgin olive oil is from the first pressing of olives, and has the strongest flavor of all the oils. It contains less than one percent acidity, and typically comprises a pungent flavor best used alone as a dipping liquid or for drizzling.
Virgin olive oil must have less than two percent acidity. It is somewhat milder in flavor, and is excellent in recipes where one doesn’t want as much of the olive flavor to permeate the dish.
“Light” refers solely to the color of the oil, so it is not actually lower in fat content. The oil becomes lighter due the the fine filtration process used. This particular oil has a very mild taste, and is closer to vegetable oil in that regard.
Pay careful attention to olive oils that may be labeled as “pomace oil” (or unscrupulously not prominently labeled as such, but which by law must be indicated in the fine print). This is second or third pressing oil that has been treated to a heat filtering process to extract the remaining oil, and it is often used for frying or in lesser quality restaurants. Because the heating process changes the chemical qualities of the extracted oil, there are questions about the health benefits of such oils.
A label that simply reads “olive oil” means that the product contains a blend of virgin oil and chemically refined virgin oil, and has no more than one percent acidity.
When purchasing olive oil, keep in mind that “Imported from Italy” does not necessarily mean the olives were grown in Italy – this only guarantees that the oil was bottled there.
Using Olive Oil
Olive oil is well-suited for use in everything from baked goods to salad dressing. “Light” olive oil is best for baking because it has very little flavor, and is also good for high-heat frying, as the filtration it goes through leaves it with a higher smoke point than other olive oils. Virgin and extra-virgin olive oils are better for use in uncooked foods, such as salad dressing, and in low- to medium-heat cooking.
Olive oil will last for up to six months when stored in a cool, dark place. It will last a year when refrigerated; if the refrigerated oil becomes cloudy or too thick to pour, simply wait for it to come back to room temperature.
Since olive oil is such a universal ingredient, we don’t consider one “best” set of matches for it. We have, however, experimented with different uses of the oil at different grades to maximize its flavor and textural contributions to various dishes. Classically it is well paired with vinegar and garlic, but that’s just the tip of the bulb.
We are completely enamored with this elixir of the gods, so we wanted to highlight the various varieties of olive oils from different countries, as each has its own unique characteristics.
Also coming this month:
Look for our Test Kitchen Note on olive oil tasting as we explore the aroma and mouth-feel of Spanish, Italian and California olive oils.
Dossier by Ava Tramer