Olive oil can be your best friend in the kitchen or your worst enemy. Using a first-rate olive oil can elevate the flavor and goodness of any food — pizza, pasta, sandwich or salad. Using an inferior olive oil can lower a dish to a level that is less than acceptable by any standard of good taste. With that in mind, allow me to point out a few facts and some of the differences between quality olive oils and those that are sub-par.
Olive oil is made from different varieties of green olives, with the resulting quality, color and flavor affected by the weather, soil, producer and geographic location –– a series of events not much different than that which occur in producing wine. Let’s look through the processing terms and different grades of olive oil:
Extra-virgin. All olive oil produced by the first pressing of the olives through a method known as cold-pressing (as opposed to using heat to extract the oil) and is less than one percent acidity is called extra-virgin. This is the BMW of olive oils; however, keep in mind that being labeled “extra-virgin” does not always relate directly to quality and taste. Those two factors link back to what I stated earlier about the olives, producer and location. Clean and fruity are the two major taste characteristics of this oil.
Virgin olive oil. This type is produced in much the same way as extra-virgin (but the olives might be slightly riper). The main difference is that virgin olive oil has a higher level of acidity (one and a half percent or more), and that relates directly to a less appealing flavor than EVOO.
Pure olive oil. Generally labeled simply “olive oil,” this type comes from the second extraction of the olive mash left over from the first pressing. This oil is lighter in color and has a less interesting flavor than EVOO or virgin oils. But for all-purpose general use, and lower cost (much lower cost), this “commercial grade” oil is perfectly suitable for all-around use –– sautéing, for example.
Refined olive oil. This type is made by the further processing of virgin olive oil (thus practically eliminating all of the clean, fruity flavor found in EVOO and virgin olive oil). Also, the acidity level rises to an unsuitable 3.3 percent. Frankly, this oil does not have much going for it at all; and, if you were to do a smell test of this oil and EVOO, you would immediately notice the vast difference.
Bottom line: Use exra-virgin olive oil for vinaigrettes, salads and stand-alone appetizers like a Caprese salad (fresh mozzarella, fresh tomatoes, fresh basil). Use virgin olive on pizza, pasta and salads where the distinct taste is less noticeable. Use pure olive oil for deep-frying. Use a combination of butter (preferably unsalted) and pure or virgin olive for sautéing. Taste and taste again to get to the level and style of olive oil that works for you.
When it comes to storage, remember that olives are fruits. In effect, this means that olive oil is a fruit juice, so over exposure to heat, light and air will cause olive oil to turn rancid. Store olive oil in tightly sealed containers — tinted glass, stainless steel or porcelain are the best — in a cool place and away from light and heat (in other words, not on the shelf above the oven, grill or fryers). The ideal temperature range for storing olive oil is 60 to 70 F. Do not store olive oil in plastic or reactive (aluminum, for example) containers.
Refrigeration does not harm any grade of olive oil lower than EVOO. Protect that expensive EVOO in every way possible. Condensation can develop in the bottle and that will affect the flavor. Refrigeration will extend the life of the oil, but it will cause it to congeal and turn cloudy. The oil will return to its original state once it comes back to room temperature.
When infused olive oils are used on various dishes — pasta, salads or pizza — they can elevate that dish to a level that can be quite incomparable, so try one of these methods. Use caution, however, because herb-infused oils should be treated with care and do not have a long shelf life. One important tip is that after washing the herbs dry them thoroughly (in a warm oven or in paper toweling), because excessive moisture will affect the final flavor.
Herb-infused Oil >>>>>>>>>
Yield: Two cups
(scale up in direct proportion)
1 cup tightly packed, torn fresh basil leaves
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
Wash and dry the herbs. Place the herbs in a large jar (I use a Ball-Mason jar or canning jar with a tight lid). Pour the oil into the jar. Use within 2-3 days.
Use the oil to brush on a pizza crust before adding pizza sauce. Use the oil to toss with cooked pasta, also on salads and appetizers.
Yield: one cup
(scale up in direct proportion)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled, thinly sliced
Heat the oil in a small saucepan, over medium heat. Add the garlic slices and cook gently until the oil is fragrant and the garlic is a toasty brown (about 4 minutes). Remove the pan from the heat and let cool. Cover the pan and let the oil steep for about 1 hour.
Strain the oil into a sterilized jar (again, I use a Ball-Mason jar or canning jar). Use within 24 hours.
Note: increase the amount of garlic to taste.
I use garlic-infused oil in any number of ways: to make pasta aglio e olio, toss cooked spaghetti or another long pasta with this oil. Add crushed red pepper flakes. Garnish with chopped flat-leaf parsley. Simple dish, yet terrific. Add cooked shrimp to the pasta for an even more impressive dish.
Use the garlic-infused oil in combination with balsamic vinegar as a dipping sauce for bread.
Brush a pizza crust, including the edge, with garlic-infused oil when making a garlic-lovers pizza.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.