Like pairing a fine dinner with the best and most complimentary wine, understanding and using the right olive oil is just as important in creating a memorable meal.
Before being able to choose the most appropriate and complimentary oil we need to understand what makes up the “flavor” of olive oil.
Since the beginning of olive oil there has been literally hundreds of adjectives used to describe the aroma, taste and mouth feel of olive oils.
Terms such as “grassy, green, buttery, fresh, floral, spicy, and tomato like” are just a few of the adjectives used. They are all descriptive of the total flavor of each oil.
We in the production side of olive oil as well as our taste experts and food critics while still dependent on subjective descriptions break down the flavors into just 3 components when we taste and rate olive oils. As you become more of an expert in tasting you will recognize these three characteristics.
It is important to realize that a large component of the taste experience in reality is the aroma (olfactory) sense at play. We will in the next blog describe how to taste and evaluate olive oil
The first of these “flavor” components is fruitiness. Extra virgin oils run the gamut from nearly no fruity traits to oils that are very high in floral or fruity notes. The description of the oil as grassy, wheat, apple or banana are examples of terms that really are describing the fruitiness of the oil. It is a sense more of aroma than taste.
The next component is bitter. This is a flavor that really is not that popular in American food and beverages. We often recoil when tasting bitter and it is often described as “astringent or medicine like” but all great oils have a component of bitterness. It is the balance of the bitter component that is quite important, as bitterness itself is not an overly pleasant flavor, however in fruity oil some degree of bitterness is a perfect balance.
The final flavor component is pungency or pepperiness. This is the component of the flavor that you experience a few seconds after you swallow the oil. At times it may cause you to cough. The old timers in Italy will jokingly describe the degree of pungency as a “ one, two or three cough” oil.
With these three flavor components you come up with infinite combinations of a complex flavored olive oil.
We in the oil-making world go onto characterize the flavor profiles one last way. A fruity oil with only a hint of bitter and pepper are considered “delicate, round or soft”. Oil predominantly bitter or pungent is consider “robust, big or bold”.
A good rule of thumb when choosing oils for food preparation is look for the blend of equally intense pairings. Big flavors like meats, traditional tomato sauces and dishes will do best with robust oils
Care in olive oil selection for delicate dishes is most important as a robust oil can easily overrun the all the other ingredients. When preparing fish, light sauces and vegetables the softer delicate oils enhance but do not overtake the flavor.