EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) is an acronym which causes me to visibly whence when I hear it uttered. There are a few kitchen celebrities I abhor…..however Rachel Ray is one of them. I have nothing against her per-se except the nauseating repetition with which she bandies EVOO and makes use of it in seemingly every dish she prepares. And to be a tad bit more catty- she chortles after saying ‘Grab the EVOO’ like a school girl giving a secret code to enter a club house. Nails on chalk board.
Regardless of my personal likes and dislikes the topic of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or any olive oil for that matter, is rather an interesting one. I was shopping in WholePayCheck this morning when I noticed a woman deliberating over the numerous bottles of olive oils in front of her. She was growing more tense with each passing second. This is a feeling I know well, a phobia really, when I’m ultimately forced to go down the toothpaste isle and pick from among the seeming thousands of options. I freeze, cover my eyes, jab forth my hand until I blindly make a selection, then run as quickly as I can, hoping to leave the specter of second guessing and doubt far behind me.
Olive oil can be somewhat similar to the initiate, so here are some practical tips to help you discern a course of action when procuring:
First thing to note – Olive oil should NOT be your go to oil for all cooking regardless of what you see on television. Olive oil has a low smoking point, meaning if you are frying/sautéing the hell out of something, you’d be much better served with a vegetable oil or a peanut oil. That smoke boiling up, is literally you ruining your dish. Ummm back ground notes of acrid burnt oil. High heat? Use a different oil.
Second tier of decision making- do I want to taste the olives or don’t I? There are all kinds of grades of olive oil and you can basically drive yourself mad trying to classify them on your grocer’s shelves so I’ll stick to a somewhat high level. Extra Virgin is the realm in which you will get the most olive flavor from what is found on the average shelf. They can be, and tend to be darker in color (though this can be deceptive with some manufacturers who add coloring), more gently and naturally processed, and as a result retain more flavor. Extra Virgins are best employed for oil dressings, light infusions, dipping, and finishing. Pure and Light Olive oils have been heavily processed and therefore have less to no flavor. These can be used for your quick sautés and stir-fries- again a low to mid heat. I’d also use this quality if I were whipping up a fruity vinaigrette as you wouldn’t want to taste the olives anyway.
Most people can stop right here as this covers the bulk of olive oil usage in this country. Oh and worth noting; those olive oil shops that specialize in all the clever infusions- they are using light oil, putting all that crap in it to steep, then packaging the oil in a slightly tinted bottle for the masses to ooooo and ahhhh over. But hey, everybody has to make a buck so go buy a bottle or five.
The third qualifier in taking your olive oil game to the next level is seeking out a bottle of liquid gold where the contents are cloudy, murky even, with sediment at the bottom. Unfiltered olive oil is only for those occasions where you intend for that fruity, peppery and sometimes bitter taste to come crashing through to the front of the line. For some, unfiltered olive oil can be a little harsh but damn is it good once you’re accustomed. When I’m presented with a high quality olive oil my taste buds immediately transport me back to the Amalfi Coast or San Sebastián where, with some rustic local bread, I can sop this stuff up like pot-liquor and corn bread.
You will be hard pressed to find it in this country outside Sonoma, but some unfiltered is so fresh you have to keep it refrigerated or it will go rancid rather quickly. Bear in mind, like all things, the higher the quality, the more it is going to cost- but the less you are going to use it. Keep a few different go to oils on hand, each with its intended utility as the guide, and you’ll enjoy much more satisfying outcomes. And please don’t ever ever say ‘Grab the EVOO’ or you might get throat punched.