Frequently Asked Questions about Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Questions about olives & vinegars?

Extra virgin (EV) olive oil is the oil extracted from fresh olives using a mechanical process without the use of excessive heat or any form of additives or solvents. Provided that the olives are free from disease, and they are processed into oil without delay. Using a clean mill they should produce an olive oil that has an aroma and flavour that is free of taste defects, and as such is of extra virgin grade. It should be noted that EV oils can be legitimately made without using a press. In fact, most EV olive oils made in commercial relevant quantities are not made by pressing but instead by centrifugation of the paste made by crushing olives. What pressing and centrifugation have in common is that they are both mechanical processes and neither involves the use of any chemical agents. The heat bit is more of a technical issue. You can extract more oil out of olive paste if you heat it up. However, the quality of the oil will suffer as a result. The application of some heat is necessary to extract commercially viable amounts of oil with good aroma and flavour. 28-30 degrees Celsius is the ideal temperature with 32 degrees Celsius being the upper end of the temperature range used by most producers interested in quality.

Extra virgin olive oil is essentially the naturally extracted juice from fresh olives. The olives are crushed into a paste, and the oil is physically extracted from this paste without the use of chemicals or excessive heat. Extra virgin olive oil has a distinctive olive fruity aroma and flavour, and it contains natural antioxidants. The aroma and flavour, of olive oil adds complementary flavours to a wide variety of dishes. “pure” and “light” and those labeled “olive oil‟ are olive oils that have been refined. Refining is a complex process that involves the use of acids, alkalis, steam, and other agents. The refining process removes all of the aroma and flavour substances out of the olive including its natural antioxidants. Artificial antioxidants such as butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and the related compound butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) need to be added back to give the refined olive oil a reasonable shelf life. As such, unlike extra virgin olive oil, “pure” and “light‟ olive oil lack the aroma, flavour and any form of bitterness and pepperiness. In fact, the word “light” only refers to the light colour, aroma, and flavour of these oils.

Firstly, olive oils are typified by their high level of monounsaturated fats compared with nearly all other edible oils. Monounsaturates are preferred by the health conscious. Oils high in monounsaturates are also more resistant to oxidation and as such have longer shelf lives. Incidentally, the major monounsaturated fat in olive oils is oleic acid. Extra virgin olive oils contain between 65% and 85% oleic acid. As a result of selective breeding, some sunflower and canola oils also contain high levels of oleic acid. But these have no aroma, flavour or health-giving antioxidants as they are refined oils. EV olive oil is the only high monounsaturated oil that makes your food taste better.

They are referring to the style of oil that is in the bottle. Robust oils, have strong bitterness and/or pungency (pepper), and as they are usually made from greener olives, typically display herbaceous aromas and flavours. Mild oils on the other hand have low bitterness and pungency. Mild oils are best used on delicately flavoured foods such as on white fish and mayonnaise, while robust oils better complement strongly flavoured foods such as roast meats and flavoursome soups. When it comes to bread dipping, either can be used, but most people have a personal preference for one style over another. The term ‘fruity’ is more of a marketing term rather than style term. That is, an oil can be fruity, but represent either a mild, medium, or robust style.

The way they are made in part depends on the flavour type. The most encountered flavoured olive oils are of the citrus type. These can be made either by 1) adding citrus skins to the olives and crushing them together before extracting the oil, 2) by adding skins to the oil after it has been extracted and letting the citrus flavours infuse out into the oil or 3) by adding food grade citrus oils to the olive oil. The first method is called agrumato and makes the best oils as they have natural flavours that typically meld well with the flavour of the olive oil base.

The general principle applies here that both light and heat are the enemies of olive oil. As such, olive oils should be stored in a cool dark place. On the other side of the coin, the worst place to store olive oil is on top of the refrigerator or next to the oven where they may become heated, or even worse on a window sill. Olive oils will rapidly become rancid if stored in a warm, well-lit environment. Exposure to light also hastens the loss of the health-giving vitamin E like compound tocopherol.

Yes, but to be honest, refined olive oils (that is those labeled as ‘Pure’ or ‘Light’) are probably a more cost effective alternative when more than shallow frying. Refined olive oils also begin to smoke at a higher temperature than most extra virgin olive oils, making them more suited to deep frying. However, extra virgin olive oils are a far better alternative when shallow frying. It is commonly thought that extra virgin olive oil smokes at a low temperature. However, it is a fact that the lower the free fatty acidity (FFA) i.e. better oils, the higher the temperature at which the oil will begin to smoke.

Extra virgin olive oils are best consumed young as it is at this time when their fresh olive like aromas and flavours, and the health-giving polyphenols are at their peak. Unlike wine, olive oils do not get better with age, so the closer to their release date that you purchase and use them, the better. As a guide, provided they are stored properly, the majority of current season extra virgin olive oils will retain good flavour, aroma and freshness for at least 12 – 18 months.