Olive oil is a fundamental ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine, known for its health benefits and rich flavor.
However, not all olive oils are the same. The main distinction in the world of olive oils is between extra virgin olive oil and standard olive oil.
These two oils differ in:
- What is extra virgin olive oil?
- Production process: from harvest to bottle
- Nutritional values compared between extra virgin and olive oil
- Differences in flavor and aroma
- Culinary uses of olive oil and EVOO
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, often abbreviated as EVOO, is the purest and most natural form of olive oil. It is obtained directly from pressing olives using mechanical processes, ensuring a natural and unaltered product.
To be classified as extra virgin, the oil must meet strict parameters:
- Low Acidity: It must have an acidity lower than 0.8%, measured as a percentage of oleic acid. This is a key indicator of the oil’s quality.
- Organoleptic Examination: Professional tasters evaluate the oil to ensure it has no defects and has a pronounced “fruity” sensation, reminiscent of the scent and taste of fresh olives.
Mechanical Extraction Processes: Extra virgin oil must be obtained through mechanical processes, not chemical ones.
- If the oil does not meet these standards, it cannot be labeled as extra virgin, but rather as virgin or lampante oil (oils with an acidity higher than 0.8).
Olive oil, on the other hand, is a blend of virgin, lampante, and refined oil, the latter being obtained through chemical refining processes.
Refining involves reducing acidity using chemical processes like the use of soda, decolorization with clays and vegetable carbons, and the removal of any odors. This results in an oil with reduced acidity but a neutral flavor.
The extraction process of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is crucial in preserving its qualities. One of the key practices we use is cold extraction.
This means controlling the temperature throughout the production process, ensuring it does not exceed 27°C (80.6°F).
This is done to maintain the integrity of the aromas and polyphenols (substances known for their health benefits, such as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties) which tend to significantly diminish with increasing temperature.
An advanced method to ensure cold extraction is the use of crushers, which replace the traditional method of mill and press. Crushers minimize the heating and oxidation of the olives, thus preserving the organoleptic and nutritional profile of the oil.
Olive oil, as mentioned earlier, is produced through blends of various oils, including refined oils, i.e., oils obtained through chemical processes.
Furthermore, the ripeness of the olives plays a different role in the production of these oils.
For EVOO, green or just ripe olives are preferred. These olives yield less oil but offer a more intense flavor, a higher number of polyphenols, and lower acidity, factors that contribute to the superior quality and healthy profile of EVOO.
Conversely, for olive oil, more mature olives are preferred, which yield more oil and have a less intense flavor, but typically higher acidity.
Both EVOO and standard olive oil are rich in monounsaturated fats, particularly oleic acid, known for its beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.
However, the quality and proportion of these fatty acids are better in extra virgin due to the more delicate production methods that preserve the oil’s natural composition.
But it’s the rich content of antioxidants (mainly polyphenols) in EVOO that represents its most distinctive and beneficial feature.
These powerful antioxidants reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, offering significant health benefits. This richness of polyphenols, lost in the refining of standard olive oil, places EVOO in a superior class both in terms of taste and health benefits.
The distinction between extra virgin olive oil and standard olive oil is significantly evident in their flavor and aroma.
Extra virgin is renowned for its richness and complexity of flavors and aromas. This oil can present a wide range of sensory notes:
- Fruity: Hints of fresh olives, which can vary from sweet to slightly bitter, depending on the variety of the olives.
- Herbs and Vegetables: Aromas reminiscent of fresh grass, tomato leaves, artichoke, or other plants, particularly present in some EVOOs.
- Spicy and Bitter: A distinctive characteristic of many high-quality extra virgin oils, linked to the presence of antioxidants like polyphenols.
- Notes of Almond, Apple, or Other Fruits: Some EVOOs may have delicate nuances reminiscent of other fruits or nuts.
- Standard olive oil, due to the refining process, has a much more neutral and less complex profile compared to EVOO. In particular, it is characterized by the absence of spiciness and bitterness as it lacks polyphenols.
Extra virgin olive oil, with its rich flavor and aroma profile, is ideal for a range of uses:
Raw Use: EVOO is excellent when used raw, as a final dressing on salads, grilled vegetables, soups, and other dishes. Its raw application enhances and enriches the flavors of the dishes, adding a level of gustatory complexity.
Marinades and Dressings: EVOO is great for creating aromatic marinades or salad dressings, where its flavor can be combined with vinegar, herbs, and spices.
Low-Temperature Cooking: Although EVOO can be used for cooking, it is best reserved for low-temperature methods such as light sautéing, to avoid deteriorating its heat-sensitive compounds.
Standard olive oil is ideal for High-Temperature Cooking. Thanks to its higher smoke point compared to EVOO, standard olive oil is suitable for frying, sautéing, and other high-temperature cooking techniques.
In choosing between extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and standard olive oil, it is essential to consider both culinary use and health benefits. While standard olive oil is a practical choice for high-temperature cooking, to fully exploit the nutritional benefits and to enrich dishes with more intense and complex flavors, EVOO is clearly superior.
EVOO not only enhances the taste of dishes with its rich and varied aromatic profile but also offers significant health benefits thanks to its high content of antioxidants, monounsaturated fatty acids, and other beneficial nutrients.
This makes it ideal for raw use in salads, as a final dressing on hot dishes, and in preparations that do not require high temperatures.
Extra virgin olive oil is the best choice for those seeking a healthier diet and dishes with a richer and more nuanced taste. Using extra virgin olive oil means not only elevating the quality of one’s dishes but also making a conscious choice for one’s well-being.