Over the years, we Americans have loved our fad diets. But fortunately we’re learning more and more about sensible, healthy eating that offers more on the menu than grapefruit and cabbage soup. One diet that has gotten a lot of recent attention is the Mediterranean diet, featuring olive oil as one of its superstar ingredients. Besides being delicious, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats, which are purported to reduce bad cholesterol without affecting good cholesterol, and it’s also high in antioxidants. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, two tablespoons a day may reduce your chance of heart disease.
But here’s the challenge for savvy consumers: a trip to the grocery store turns up over 30 different brands—along with another dozen at the specialty food store down the street. How do you decide which one is the one for you? Let me tell you now: There is not one definitive answer, because it depends on several factors, including how and why you plan to use it. It helps to know a few basics when trying to choose the right olive oil.
Learn the Basics for Easy Shopping
Olive oil is pressed from olives, and the first press yields the fruity green liquid known as extra virgin olive oil. Additional pressings produce more oil, and the final extraction, in which chemicals and heat are used to expel the final bits of oil, produces something called pomace oil. Olive oil is also graded by acidity: Extra virgin olive oil has acidity of less than .8 percent and generally has a stronger flavor. Virgin olive oil is made from pure olive oil, with acidity of less than 2 percent. Pure olive oil, olive oil and pomace oil are usually a combination of olive oil and refined (pomace) oil. These distinctions may or may not be used in American markets; olive oil and the terms associated with it are not regulated, and producers sometimes include potentially misleading information on the label to increase shelf appeal. With a little time, and some good reading glasses, the type of oil and the country of origin can usually be determined from the back label.
Some olive oils have no discernible taste, while others can taste very strongly of pepper, fruit or green, grassy notes. Olive oil is like wine; everyone has a preference, and to find what that preference is, you need to experiment. Truthfully, olive oil is at its peak the day it’s pressed, and day by day, loses some of its flavor. In fact, some olive oils are sold with a pressing date on the label and are available only for a short time during the spring. Olive oil, like most oils, should be stored only for one year unopened, and about three to six months after opening, in a dark, cool location—so for best results steer clear of the huge jugs at the discount warehouse.
With olive oil, as with most other foods, the more it’s refined, the less of “the good stuff” (flavor and antioxidants) remains. If you are using olive oil strictly for its health benefits, it seems obvious that you should buy oils marked extra virgin or virgin olive oil. Although they are generally more expensive, look for oils that are unfiltered and unrefined.
Olive oil has cooking benefits too. It has a higher smoke point than some other oils, which means that you can sauté at a higher temperature than other fats like butter without risk of burning. But keep in mind that the special flavors are erased with high heat, so save your more expensive extra virgin olive oils for recipes like pesto, salad dressings or flavored dipping oils in which the taste of the oil is the attraction. One of my favorite dining experiences in Italy was a simple grilled fish, showered with coarse salt and fresh pepper and drizzled with a fresh, peppery extra virgin olive oil—simple but perfect! For cold or low-heat dishes—salad dressings, or for tossing with cooked pasta, dipping crusty bread or drizzling over fish or pizza after cooking—a highly flavored extra virgin oil is definitely worth the price.
Though you can see there are many options, some of them confusing, use these guidelines when shopping. If you are using olive oil for its health benefits, buy extra virgin olive oil all the time. Choose for yourself whether you prefer a mild or heartily flavored oil. If you are using olive oil for cooking, I’d choose a less flavorful oil (but not pomace oil), and then choose another more flavorful oil for finishing.
Lemon and Olive Oil Cake
This is really an opportunity to taste olive oil in action. The oven temperature is gentle enough that you’ll still notice the flavor of the olive oil—so use a mild one if that’s your style—and heartier oil if you want to be daring. Either way, this isn’t a sweet cake, but it’s a big treat in Italian kitchens, and goes well with coffee.
1 cup sugar
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 cup extra virgin olive oil (your choice: hearty or mild)
1 ½ cups flour
½ cup coarse cornmeal
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Marmalade. fruit compote (citrus sections mixed with honey and allowed to set for an hour) or powdered sugar for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch round cake pan with olive oil. In a mixer, combine the sugar and lemon zest. Add the eggs and beat at medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 10 minutes. Mix in milk, oil and ¼ cup lemon juice.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix to combine. Scrape batter into prepared pan, and smooth the top.
Bake cake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool five minutes, then remove from pan, and cool to room temperature.
Serve with marmalade and a sprinkling of powdered sugar, or a citrus compote. Serves 8.
Marinated Goat Cheese
8 ounces goat cheese
1 tablespoon pink peppercorns (or mixed peppercorns)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of fresh thyme or rosemary
3 cloves garlic
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Cut cheese into four rounds, and flatten slightly. Put in a heatproof dish. Sprinkle with peppercorns and crushed red pepper. Top with bay leaf and herbs. Scatter whole peeled garlic cloves over ingredients. Heat olive oil over low heat until warm. Pour over cheese, and allow to marinate at room temperature for an hour. Serve, or refrigerate. (Alternately, place all ingredients in a jar, and marinate overnight in the refrigerator.) Serve with crusty French bread. Serves 8.