Tasting freshness: Not all olive oils are the same
“High-quality fresh olive oil is such an amazing ingredient,” says David Garci-Aguirre, vice president of operations and Master Miller for Corto Olive Co. So he’s always eager to educate chefs about the variety of flavors in extra virgin olive oil and how to determine quality. “The best tool we have, and the one we try and capitalize on the most, is tasting it.”
Garci-Aguirre says that many oils available for foodservice are rancid. “Some people prefer rancidity,” he says. “If you open a bag of potato chips, the smell is of rancidity. Most of us have grown up with it.” He adds that once people make the association that olive oil is like fruit juice, in that it should taste like fresh fruit and is better when it’s fresh, their perception changes. “Once they taste fresh, high quality oil, it is a game changer.”
Chefs might consider bringing in an expert to educate themselves and their teams—and perhaps some loyal customers. But even without a Master Miller on hand, an olive oil tasting can highlight oils’ qualities and flavors, sparking ideas to transform menu items.
Take a taste
Check the color by pouring some olive oil onto a white plate. Fresh extra virgin olive oil can range from deep green to yellowy gold. While color doesn’t necessarily affect the taste—in fact, professional tasters use a blue glass so they aren’t influenced by the color—oil that is very pale may be old, diluted with inferior oil, or impacted by high-heat processing.
Pour a few tablespoons of oil into a small glass or plastic cup and hold it to warm it up to help it bloom and release aromas. Gently swirl the oil and bring the cup right up to your nose to smell it. High quality olive oil will smell like fresh olives, with a fruity, fresh, clean, pleasing fragrance. If the aroma is musty, stale, rancid or absent completely, the oil is lower in quality.
Take a sip. While the oil is still in your mouth, gently inhale through your nose and mouth to disperse the flavor and aroma. When swallowing, pay attention to its finish, or lingering flavor notes toward the back of the palate. Superior quality oil tastes intensely fresh, fruity and crisp.
“When you taste a fresh oil, mouthfeel is really important,” Garci-Aguirre says. “With a fresh, high-quality oil, your mouth will feel totally clean. It is not oily or greasy at all. It can even be astringent; it will suck the moisture out of your mouth like a fresh green apple.”
If you’re tasting more than one oil, you’ll want to clean your palate in between tastes. The California Olive Oil Council recommends a bite of tart apple, like a granny smith, and a drink of water.
Variations on the theme
To taste the differences in oils, try comparing products that are harvested in fall vs. winter. An extra virgin olive oil produced with fruit harvested in the fall will have a fresh, fruity taste. An oil from a winter harvest may taste fermented or like solvent, because the fruit was overripe.
Another variable that will impact olive oil taste is oxidation. If oil is exposed to air, heat or light, it will start to deteriorate. With traditional packaging like bottles or tins, oil is exposed to oxygen immediately upon opening, leading to accelerated oxidation. Some olive oil purveyors are working on innovative packaging to keep air out completely, such as bag-in-box products.
It helps to taste even your go-to oils often to ensure flavor and quality. “A lot of olive oils don’t taste that good to me,” says Bill McDaniel, executive chef at Motel Morris. “Now I understand why. Some of them are not fresh at all and have been packaged improperly.”
For more information on Corto Olive Oil, visit www.corto-olive.com.