For many chefs, finding the right olive oil is as important as pairing the right wines. More than just a staple of Mediterranean cooking, olive oil defines it. What makes this ingredient so important that chefs will travel around the world for it?
Olive oil is pervasive around the Mediterranean—and for good reasons. The olive tree thrives in the Mediterranean climate, and the calories associated with olive oil have sustained the people of the region for thousands of years. It’s worthwhile to understand olive oil in the context of food, because it is central to Mediterranean cooking. As you move away from the Mediterranean and the climate changes, the olive tree falters, and the cooking is no longer defined as Mediterranean. Olive oil can make a variety of nutrient-dense food taste delicious, plus it is a nutritional powerhouse. In fact, it is one of the healthiest fats you can consume—and it’s delicious in its own right.
This is a transcript from the video series Everyday Gourmet: The Joy of Mediterranean Cooking. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
How Olive Oil Is Made
Olive oil begins with olives. Olives ripen in the fall. If the fruit is harvested when it’s fully formed and green, when it is crushed, the oil is very green, peppery, and even a little bitter. But if the olive is allowed to stay on the tree after it’s fully formed, the oil is soft, buttery, and maybe a little greasy.
Along the ripeness continuum, the yield increases. Of course, olive oil producers want to maximize yield, but they also want to maximize flavor— which is found earlier in the season. The challenge is to balance flavor and yield.
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Once the olives are harvested, first they are washed, and then they are separated from sticks, twigs, seeds, and leaves. Next, they are crushed. This was traditionally done in a stone mill, but today it’s done with a hammer mill, which is like a giant garbage disposal that creates a paste. That paste is then mixed for a short amount of time. The mixing allows the emulsion that may have formed in the crushing to break, and the oil begins to separate from the solids.
Olive oil is a perishable product. Light, heat, moisture, and exposure to air can all negatively affect an olive oil’s shelf life. That’s why olive oil comes in a closed bottle, and you want to keep it closed. Typically, the bottle will be dark, which will protect it from light. There should not be any moisture in it. If you keep it in a cool spot, then the oil should last very well from one year to the next.
Ultimately, the goal is to separate the oil from everything else. Traditionally, this was done by spreading the paste onto hemp mats, stacking the mats up, andpressing them. The mat would capture the solids while the oil and water flowed out. The oil and water separated naturally, and the olive oil could be decanted off the top. Today, something similar to a cream separator, a centrifuge, spins the mixture. Because the oil is less dense than water, it will spin off at a different time, and the oil can be separated from water and from solids.
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Tasting Olive Oil
While you can learn about olive oil from tasting it just as it is, understanding the flavor of olive oil in the context of food—which can be as simple as tasting it on a piece of bread—makes more sense. One way of doing this is to organize a tasting of three different extra-virgin olive oils by using them as dressings on salad. For example, you might try one from France, one from Spain, and one from Italy.
To do an olive oil tasting exercise, put together three small salads of shaved fennel, shaved endive, shaved mushrooms, and shaved Parmesan cheese. Dress each of the salads with a different olive oil. Season all three with salt and a few drops of lemon juice. Then, taste each salad, noting the differences in the flavors of the olive oils.
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Another way of understanding olive oil in the context of food is to dip a piece of bread into the first olive oil you want to taste and then into a particular Mediterranean spice. This can be repeated with other olive oils and different spices. In the eastern Mediterranean, a number of different spice preparations are used as seasoning agents, two of which are dukkah and za’atar. Dukkah is made from cumin, coriander, nuts (almonds or hazelnuts), and sesame. Za’atar is made from wild thyme, sesame, and sumac (a souring agent used in that part of the world). If you were having an olive oil tasting party, or if you were inviting people to your home to enjoy Mediterranean food, these spices would be a great addition.
Make a Toasted Bread with Marmalade, a Subtle Olive Oil, and Salt
One of the best ways to really appreciate the flavor profile of olive oil is pairing it with some toast and marmalade.
- 10 slices rustic peasant bread
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup orange marmalade bitter
- 1 oz sea salt
Slice some whole-grain bread, toast it, and then spread a bitter marmalade on it. Then, drizzle a pungent, punchy olive oil on top. The olive oil provides richness and gives the marmalade a depth of flavor it didn’t have before. Finally, sprinkle some good- quality sea salt, such as flaky Maldon salt, on top.
An alternative to this recipe uses rye toast with avocado spread on it, along with olive oil, salt, and pepper. You can also cook an egg in olive oil, as an alternative to butter, and eat it with some toast for breakfast.