Olive oil, we all love to eat it and cook with it, but there’s a lot more to the golden oil than meets the eye. First off, not all olive oil is created equal and buying the best olive oil you can afford can be the difference between an investment for your daily cooking endeavours and throwing your money down the drain. Wherever possible, opt for Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) that has been made locally, and you’ll ensure you get the best flavour and cooking experience from your choice.
But what even is EVOO? How do you buy the best oil for your needs, how do you cook with it effectively, and store it? We’ve got all the answers in this handy guide!
Thinking that ‘olive oil is just olive oil’ would be like saying that all ‘wine is just wine’. There are important factors to know a little about so that you can make informed decisions about what to buy and how to enjoy olive oil.
What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
EVOO (pronounced ee-voo) stands for Extra Virgin Olive Oil — is the highest grade and most expensive of virgin olive oil, derived by mechanical cold extraction at below 30°C, (which means it is not altered by temperature) without the use of solvents or refining methods. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is free of any defects and rich in positive attributes, such as fruity bitter and pungent or peppery. Fruity refers to the flavours and aromas of correctly harvested and processed fresh, healthy olive fruit.
EVOOs can be categorized according to three styles: intense; medium and those delicate oils. The style of EVOO is largely influenced by the specific cultivar or blend of cultivars used; the maturity of the fruit; and by the area of origin, terroir and seasonal climatic conditions. Of the more than 200 olive cultivars grown around the world, there are around 20 different cultivars used to make olive oil in South Africa.
The more well-known cultivars of olives used to make EVOO in South Africa are:
· Leccino – produces an oil with soft, subtle herbaceous flavours.
· Frantoio – a typical Tuscan varietal, with strong green overtones.
· Coratina – can produce a rather bitter oil.
· Favolosa – produces an intensely fruity oil.
· Mission – a table olive which can be used to produce smooth delicate fruity oils, often contributing to roundness in a blend.
Many producers choose to blend different cultivars and batches to maintain a more consistent product every year, while others offer separate varietals which display differing characteristics with each harvest.
What is NOT Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Virgin Olive Oil is a natural, unrefined, but lower quality olive oil. It is not as tasty or as healthy as EVOO.
- Olive Oil / Pure Olive Oil / Light Olive Oil are refined olive oils occasionally blended with a minimal amount of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. They look the part and cost less but are simply not as good for you.
- Olive Pomace Oil is extracted from the pulp left over from the first press using solvents, and is not fit for human consumption unless refined and blended.
- Lampante Oil is the lowest grade of olive oils and is not fit for human consumption. The name originates from its use as fuel for lamps.
Whenever possible, buy direct from the farm for the absolute freshest oils — because who can pass up an opportunity to taste and buy right at the source? Otherwise, be sure to bear in mind the quick SA Olive checklist when you buy South African EVOO from a supermarket or deli.
Always be on the lookout for The SA Olive CTC seal on a bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). This is a seal of confidence, and it’s the guarantee that the producer is ‘committed to compliance’ in quality olive oil production. It confirms that the EVOO is 100% locally (South African) produced and is authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
To splurge or not to splurge? That’s NOT the question! Purchasing a good quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil is always money well spent. Extra Virgin Olive Oil is accepted as being the best quality oil available and as such commands a premium retail price.
Storing your Extra Virgin Olive Oil correctly can prolong its shelf-life. The olive harvest takes place between March and July in the Southern Hemisphere; the newly pressed and bottled oils are then available from June-July in the same year.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil does not mature with age (but will usually stay fresh in a sealed bottle for 18 to 24 months), so ideally it should be consumed as fresh as possible to derive the most culinary and health benefits. Always look for the harvest year on SA Olive’s CTC seal.
Follow these top 5 tips for the best results:
1. Keep your olive oil as air-tight as possible.
2. It is best stored in a sealed, dark container (glass or other material) and kept out of direct sunlight
3. If buying large quantities, decant the oil into smaller containers to protect it from the air until being used.
4. Once a container has been opened, it should preferably be used within 2 months.
5. Do not store Extra Virgin Olive Oil in the fridge, as it will solidify and condensation will promote oxidation.
Tasting Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Although the colour of olive oil may play a role in a consumer’s choice, the quality of olive oil is unrelated to its colour because it’s all about taste and harmony. To find a high-quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil, seek out a predominantly “fruity” aroma (green or ripe olive fruit, or hints of fruit such as apple, banana, citrus, passion fruit, forest fruits, or fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, greens, artichokes, or fresh cut grass).
A fruity aroma is expected because EVOO is a natural juice extracted from the olive fruit, like orange juice. The fruity aroma is an olfactory characteristic: we perceive it through our nose when we sniff the oil. When we taste a really good olive oil, bitter and spicy notes flood our mouth, perhaps along with, or followed by, a slightly sweeter flavour and aromas that remind us again of fruits, vegetables, grass, and spices.
Be sure to check out this super helpful flavour wheel and try to purchase your EVOO’s direct from the farm, that way you will have a chance to sample. Once you know which olive oils you love you can stock up on your favourite EVOO by shopping online.
Cooking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil
One of the oldest myths about Extra Virgin Olive Oil is that you can’t cook with it and that simply isn’t true. Authentic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (that has not been refined or blended with other oils) is highly stable when heated. EVOO not only has a high smoke point (temperature at which visible smoke forms), but most importantly, it does not break down into harmful compounds like other oils when heated at high temperatures.
The smoke point of Extra Virgin Olive Oil is between 200 and 220°C, which is much higher than needed for most cooking styles, including frying. Contrary to popular belief, even when olive oil reaches smoking point, it won’t become carcinogenic.
The best flavour combinations are obtained when using the most appropriate style of oil with a particular food. The more intensely flavoured foods are best complemented with more intensely fruity oil while, for a special dessert, very delicate oil will enhance the subtle flavours without dominating the dish.
- Use the more intense oils for grilling meat, sautéing garlic and onions, on toast with ricotta, swirled into hot soup and for ice cream.
- Use medium style oil for baking fresh tuna, with chicken, on subtle salads and in baking.
- Use delicate oil for mayonnaise, in desserts and over fresh fruit.
Find more tips for cooking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil here.