Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Here's a preview of the next two weeks -- non-mediterranean olive oils

Explore the continent of Australia

Explore the country of New Zealand

Explore South America

Explore North America

Explore South Africa

Explore vinegars of the non-Mediterranean

Facts about olive oil labeling: the truth about extra virgin, best used by, and more

23 of the 24 countries of the world that are the major producers of olive oil belong to a non-governmental regulating body called the International Olive Oil Council. The 24th country has antiquated laws and regulations about olive oil and has not signed on to the Council. In 23 of those countries, an olive oil sold as "Extra Virgin" meets quite a stringent set of rules that dictate what's being sold to you is good, quality olive juice... not the cooking oil that refined olive oil is, barely tasting separate from its crude colleagues, canola oil, vegetable oil, corn oil; "Extra Virgin Olive Oil" is more on par with hazelnut oil, pinenut oil, almond oil, but really a league above them as well. Olive Oil has more variations of taste than butter--and butter tastes damn good. The highest quality olive oils have as much variation as the highest quality honeys, or the variations in cheese. They are beautiful expressions of the diversity of the olive and its connection to the land on which it grows.

The 24th country is the United States, which, save for a ribald band of olive oil producers in California that have formed the California Olive Oil Council, has no meaningful regulations on what can be called "Extra Virgin" olive oil. The minimal requirements set by U.S. laws allow the most indistinct, bland, and flavorless oils to still call themselves "Extra Virgin." It's meaning as a label has been severely diminished. So,

FACT #1 - "Extra Virgin" on a label of an olive oil bottle means absolutely nothing in regard to the taste of the oil in that bottle.

Once the physical means of extracting olive juice have been exhausted, the resulting oil is stored in huge stainless steel vats. Many olive oils are labeled "best used by" with a date stamped two years after the bottling date. That's the minimal requirements if an olive oil producer puts a "best used by" on their bottle. But here's the catch for the consumer: olive oil starts degrading the moment it's crushed out of that olive--it no longer has nature to protect it and in about two years, give or take quite a few months, that oil will go rancid. It's degrading while it's in that stainless steel vat. We can slow it down, but not WAY down--not without using chemistry and high temperatures to remove all impurities from the oil. It's that purity that U.S. laws regulate (and don't get me started on the fact that these are self-regulating laws, with no meaningful inspections)--which means that U.S. laws don't help people recognize fresh, tasty olive juice.

FACT #2 - "Best Used By" means absolutely nothing if not accompanied by a "Harvested In" date as well. The average time one has to use a high-quality extra virgin olive oil is about two years, some varieties giving nearly three years or even more, other varieties giving only a year.

FACT #3 - Not all "extra virgin" olive oils are as high quality as others, even when following the rules of the I.O.O.C. Look for the initials A.O.C. or D.O.P. (sometimes D.P.O.) as the easiest sign to see of a high-quality olive oil.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Frying with extra virgin olive oil - smoke point myths

It's a myth that you can't fry with extra virgin olive oil. The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil is variable, but rarely falls below 375F for high end, high quality extra virgin olive oil. The smoke point is going to vary because it's effected by the free fatty acid content of the oil. The higher the free fatty acid content, the lower the smoke point. With refined olive oils (which is different than "virgin" vs. "extra virgin"), the fatty acids have been lowered by chemically stripping them out. With really high end olive oils, the fatty acid content is low because the olive was treated really well in its harvest and production.

The best temperature to fry foods (in a deep-fryer even) is 350 to 375 degrees F (several sources say this, including Joy of Cooking), which is below a nice high end olive oil's smoke point.

Free Fatty Acid % - Smoke Point Temp (degrees F)
0.04 - 425
0.06 - 410
0.08 - 400
0.10 - 390
0.20 - 375
0.40 - 350
0.60 - 340
0.80 - 330
1.00 - 320

That's a chart that shows how the smoke point of oil will change as the free fatty acid content changes. Notice that at the minimum acceptable level of free fatty acids in extra virgin olive oil (.8%) the smoke point is 330 degrees F, but much higher at a really high end olive oil's free acid content (Pasolivo's harvest this year is .15% so you could reach 380 degrees F). The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal means that the oil has a minimum of .5%, which would be at the lowest 345 degrees, and with a high end COOC oil fine for frying.

If you're using unfiltered or undecanted olive oil, smoke will occur (but the oil isn't smoking) because little olive solids are smoking.

So, my recommendation is to only use a high end extra virgin olive oil that has the free fatty acid content printed on the label below .2% if you're going to fry. And honestly, in this day and age, if an olive oil manufacturer isn't printing the acid content on the bottle, I would wonder why not and insist on tasting the oil before I buy it. Use one that doesn't have a lot of visible solids in it (or let the bottle sit for a day so the solids can settle) since burnt olive solids may have a negative effect on the taste of your food. Or use a refined olive oil. What I wouldn't use is something that calls itself "extra virgin" and sells for less than $30 a liter.

The other myth I want to dispel is that one is wasting their money by putting good olive oil in a skillet, but I'll do that later. You can find out yourself it's a myth by frying an egg in a good Tuscan-style olive oil and frying one in Colavita.