There’s nothing equal to a fine olive oil in the culinary world. Using any other oil in its place, like sunflower or canola, simply cannot (and will not!) accomplish the same thing.
But when we say, “olive oil,” we don’t mean just any olive oil. We mean extra virgin olive oil especially! However, what’s the difference between olive oil vs. extra virgin? Is there much to compare or contrast between the highest-grade olive oil and other grades?
“Extra Virgin” is a common sight on olive oil labels, but some of us only have a vague idea of what it represents. For those of you who fall in that category, here’s a little introduction: olive oil of any grade or craftsmanship can indeed be considered divine above all other types. But, as long as the culinary arts continue to flourish, extra virgin olive oil will always soar highest of all.
With that said, what does extra virgin mean, exactly? How does it make your olive oil purchase stand out from other grades? We’ll look at all that and much more.
When you think about it, olive oil could be considered the finest fruit “juice” in all the world. After all, the process of “extracting” olive oil is like juicing: the oil is pressed directly from the olive. Olives are in fact categorized as fruits, too, growing on trees domesticated in the Mediterranean region sometime around 6,000 years ago.
It’s even believed (and historical texts suggest, too) that the olive tree was domesticated only because its oil was so useful. The fruits themselves, on the other hand, were considered undesirable for some time since they tasted so bitter when raw (even though we now know they’re delicious when prepared correctly)!
Once used as fuel or even crude lamp oil, it was only after a time that olive was finally discovered and realized as the fragrant, flavorful, and luxuriant condiment it was always meant to be. Some think this happened sometime around the 4th Century BCE.
During this time, extraction methods for the highest quality oil were developed and perfected, leading to the different qualities and olive-pressing processes we have today.
Whether it’s basic grades or extra virgin-labelled, how is olive oil made? What exactly are these methods and processes like?
To make oil of any quality, first you harvest olives from the olive tree. Next, you pile, crush, and rinse them repeatedly with water (called “pressing” the olives) to yield their flavorful juices. Olive pits (or stones) are separated and taken away during this process. Meanwhile, the softened olive pulp left over is further pressed and strained, then rinsed again with water multiple times to extract as much oil as possible.
After drawing out the optimal expected amount of oil, olive oil makers then “decant” the oil so water and substrate can settle, separate, and then have the substrate removed. This way the final product can be clear, clean, and as appetizing looking as possible.
Extra virgin olive oil is basically made in much the same way, except there’s a few key differences. Instead, you use more professional and refined techniques to capture the oil’s most precious and highest quality potential: that purity, composition, and flavor we all know and love so much in a very good olive oil.
For it to be truly extra virgin, the extraction must happen within 24-48 hours. In other words: the pressing should take place within the same day (or the next day) as the harvesting if you want to call the oil extra virgin.
Selecting the best quality olives for processing can also “up” the quality of the final product, though this isn’t required for passing as “Extra Virgin”. Above all other extraction methods, the extra virgin standard is the purest traditional process and yields the best quality olive oil. However, there are other “quality” processes out there too, such as just “virgin” olive oil or “pure” labeled olive oil.
What would a chef have to say about extra virgin olive oil, how it’s made, or how to examine the truth behind its quality? If you talk to our partner and in-house Michelin star chef, Dominique Le Stanc, he’ll have lot to share on the subject.
Dominique Le Stanc’s personal knowledge and selection go into every detail of every product we sell at La Merenda's online store This includes our very own extra virgin olive oil!
Dominique even takes it upon himself to visit the olive orchards, the growers, and to oversee harvesting and pressing of our exceptional oils. So, coming from a chef who knows the process closely, what does Dominique have to say? How can you tell an olive oil vs. extra virgin olive oil of true quality?
Chef Le Stanc emphasizes the time of pressing as the biggest highlight of reaching extra virgin grade. Only olive oil pressed within 48 hours of harvesting can meet these standards, though even sooner is best.
During his most recent visit to the press (where La Merenda’s extra virgin olive oil is created), the morning’s harvest from local olive groves was ready and waiting to be extracted…and only just a few hours after picking! Getting olives to the press straightaway is important to quality. It reduces the risk of fruits fermenting (something that can happen during olive storage before pressing) and can add an unpleasant, “rank” flavor or bite to the oil.
Some olive oil extractions use hot water, which conveniently help speed the oil pressing process. The downside to this: hot water interferes with the flavor potential of the oil. It’s never to be used during the creation of any extra virgin quality oil, says Dominique.
In addition to processing and pressing the olives as soon as possible, only cold water is to be used during the pressing.
What if you can’t exactly see or experience how extra virgin olive oil is made (which applies to most of us)? Well, fortunately, Dominique says, the quality of an extra virgin olive can be detected…even tasted in some cases, if you know how to look for it.
According to Dominique, a good extra virgin will have fruity flavor without being too aggressive and have absolutely no bitterness or rancor. A bit of “heat” is acceptable, and something that chef Dominique even prefers, though keep in mind: extra virgin olive oils can have slightly different flavor profiles from this (though this is the high quality flavor he likes)!
It does happen to be a flavor character of some oils of Liguria, and particularly of Taggiasca olive oils…Dominique’s favorite, and the flavor profile he likes!
Overall, the tasting experience should be one that is soft and delicate on the palate, never overwhelming. Any sign of bitterness means the olives may have fermented, or even that the olive oil was stored incorrectly, such as in direct sunlight.
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t detect a true extra virgin by color or even clarity. Some oils are green, while others are yellow or golden in color. Both can be extra virgin.
Green oils may be a sign the extra virgin oil is from Tuscany, where they tend to work with green olives in their oils (which makes the oil greener and even a little bit “spicier). Oils from Liguria (like Taggiasca olive oil), on the other hand, have a more golden hue and balanced flavor.
Though not necessarily a prerequisite of all extra virgin olive oils, obviously an oil will be purer (and more delicious!) if focus is put on every single olive itself. That means every single olive grown and chosen for an extra virgin should receive the utmost attention: for quality, color, and the perfect stage of maturity.
And who of all people can make sure this happens? Why, the olive grower of course, along with other olive experts and crafters down the line!
Harvesting techniques should reduce compaction, cramming, or damage to the olive. This helps prevent fermentation and undesired flavor while capturing the highest quality possible before being pressed. The use of nets around trees in olive groves are ideal: these can gently catch fruits naturally falling from trees or when trees are shaken for harvest, thus protecting their quality all the while.
Cultivation inputs under the grower’s watch are important, too. This includes water supply, sunlight, soil nutrients, climate, temperature, and maintenance. Chef Dominique will say the growing stage is an important (if not the most important) part of an extra virgin olive oil’s quality. So is the selection and blending of the oils themselves. Which, in the case of extra virgin olive oil, must be done by someone incredibly experienced to meet superb quality standards.
Watch Out! Counterfeit and Fake Extra Virgin Olive Oils
The term “Extra Virgin” may seem a little mysterious to the uninitiated. Knowing what it means though, and what it takes to meet “extra virgin” standards, is all you need to understand this incredibly high caliber condiment…and how it can make all the difference in your culinary adventures.
Equipped with the right tips and knowledge, you’ll know exactly what to look for in extra virgin olive oil, one of the most supreme and luxurious culinary oils in all the world. And, once you’ve explored the very best extra virgin olive oils, using any other type or quality of olive oil will just never be the same!
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