Get to know this healthy oil.
By Hannah Howard, SELF
Olive oil is one of the world's most ancient foods and it's one of the most common cooking ingredients. In fact, there's probably a bottle sitting in your pantry right now. Right?!
In addition to tasting delicious, olive oil is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. But this kitchen staple is often shrouded in confusion--what's the difference between virgin and extra-virgin? Is it OK to cook with the good stuff? And how can you even tell what the good stuff is?
"Olive oil is so versatile because there are many flavors, notes, and colors," says New York chef and food stylist Jennifer Ophir. "In that respect, it's like wine." And like wine, it can be intimidating.
But don't let intimidation stop you from partaking in this highly delicious and healthy elixir. Here's a quick olive oil primer:
1. Think of olive oil as olive juice.
"Olive oil is a fruit juice," explains Nicholas Coleman, chief oleologist (fancy term for olive oil expert) at Eataly NY and founder of Grove and Vine. And when fresh, that juice can be a bit intense. Similar to dark chocolate and craft beers, good, fresh olive oil has notes of bitterness.
"Fresh oils can have a pungent, lingering black pepper finish that slowly trails off in the back of the throat," says Coleman. That amazing and sometimes intense peppery sensation is considered a marker of real-deal, high-quality olive oil. It occurs because of oleocanthal, a compound that has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
And just like those fresh-pressed juices that have a short life span, olive oil, too, becomes foul with time.
2. Fresher is better, always.
"Olive oil is adversely affected by several factors including time passed since its pressing, heat, light, and air," says Steven Jenkins, olive oil expert and author of The Food Life. Luckily the shelf life is a little bit longer than that of the kale, apple, and parsley blend you love--olive oil is at its best in its first two years. An older bottle probably won't hurt you, but it slowly loses its beautiful flavors and health benefits with every passing day. To help extend the life of your olive oil, but sure to store the bottle in a dark, cool place away from direct sunlight.
3. Great olive oil is wonderfully complex--and varied.
"Olive oil adds depth and dimension to virtually any dish," says Ophir. And experts like Coleman make careers tasting and assessing the subtleties of olive oil. Hundreds of olive varieties are cultivated around the world, and dozens are valued for producing delicious oil. Different varieties absolutely have different flavor profiles and personalities--but the end result of the oil is determined by much more including geography, method of harvesting and pressing, as well as blending and storage. Again, think wine--there are plenty of luscious Pinot Noirs and plenty of crappy Pinot Noirs.
If you're at a store that allows you to taste olive oil, take advantage! The more you taste, the more you'll discover what styles make you happy.
4. And if you want the cream of the crop, go for extra-virgin.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest quality--it contains no more than 1 percent oleic acid (virgin olive oil contains up to 2 percent). The acidity comes from free fatty acids, and can be detected only in a laboratory. An expert panel of olive oil-tasters (yes, this is a job) must also discern that olive oil is up to snuff. Keep in mind, virginity is about the process of extracting the oil, and unrelated to the type of olives.
5. You can buy any bottle, just remember that you typically get what you pay for.
"Extra-virgin oil tastes good, smells good, looks good, is good for you, and brings out wonderful flavors you didn't know existed in all of your favorite foods," Jenkins says. You can end up shelling out significant dough for a stunning bottle, but for food-lovers, it's a good buy. (To help offset the splurge, here are 17 ways you can save money on food every week.) Just remember to always check the harvest date, says Coleman, and opt for the freshest you can find. When you see a bottle labeled pure, light, or olive oil, this can be an indicator that it is a refined, lesser quality product.
6. Cooking with olive oil is dandy, but you may want to save your finest bottle for drizzling.
Go ahead and cook with extra-virgin olive oil if you want--you'll get a wonderful taste and plentiful health benefits. However, many chefs tend to cook with cheaper (but still totally respectable) EVOO, like California Olive Ranch, and save the truly mind-blowing stuff, like Castillo de Canna or a bottle from Coleman's collection at Grove and Vine, for drizzling and finishing.
7. And finally, you absolutely should use olive oil for way more that just salads.
Olive oil is an incredible ingredient, and the cornerstone of the famous Mediterranean diet. Exquisite olive oil elevates everything it touches--salads, grilled veggies, meat and seafood, soups, stews, pasta, and risotto really do go from good to awesome when anointed with yummy EVOO. "It's the perfect bridge between tradition and innovation. It can be utilized in a plethora of culinary applications with astounding results," says Coleman.
Try whipping up a batch of this olive oil granola. Or, roast some veggies in olive oil--then drizzle a bit more, to finish. And these roasted leeks are all kinds of amazing. Up for a baking project? This blood orange olive oil cake will win hearts and stomachs. "From cooking with, to finishing with, to everything in between, olive oil can elevate many dishes," Ophir says.
So go ahead and pop some bottles...EVOO bottles.
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