Know Your Oil

choosing and buying extra virgin olive oil

Olive oil expert Judy Ridgway gives the lowdown

Ever more producers are taking their businesses into their own hands and selling their extra virgin olive oils direct rather than selling to the co-operatives or the big packers.  This means that there is a growing array of extra virgin oils on offer and plenty of hype from the producers but not a great deal of concrete information.  So how do you choose the best oils?

Understand the paperwork

Start by really understanding the paperwork.  The best oils will have the results of the full complement of chemical tests for extra virgin status.  Two of these tests are particularly important to the buyer.  The first is the acidity level.  This test measures the level of free fatty acids in the oil. Free fatty acids are released when fat molecules start to deteriorate and so a measure of their presence gives a good indication of the state of the oil.  The free fatty acid or acidity level in extra virgin olive oil must be less than 0.8%.  The lower the level the better the producer is likely to be.

Perhaps even more important in the market place is the result of the Peroxide test.  This measures the degree of oxidation of the oil so far. The closer the result is to the limit of “20”, the shorter the shelf life of the oil.  A look at the results of the organoleptic tasting panel can also help to point to top class producers.

Top awards in the various competitions around the world are often quoted as an indication of quality in extra virgin olive oil.  However, these competitions vary both in their judging criteria and in the quality of the judges.  The most reliable are those that use IOC tasting panel methods and tasting panel leaders as judges.  Some of the other competitions tend to be more subjective in their judging methods.   Make sure, too, that the award is current.  Last year’s award has no relevance to this year’s olive oil!

Know your product  

The next step is, of course, to taste the oil and if you know what you are looking for you will be much better able to judge the oils on offer. The three basic characteristics you will find in most extra virgin olive oils are fruitiness, bitterness and pepper.  In a first-class oil these components will be in harmony and one element will not stand out above the others.  The combination of these elements also helps to classify the oil as delicate, medium or robust; descriptions which help to answer the consumer’s first question which is “what does it taste like”.   Consider, too, the complexity of the aroma and the taste in the mouth.  The more flavour tones in the oil the better.

Know your customer

There is no point in stocking a range of robust oils if your customers are looking for more delicate styles.  You are not buying to please yourself but to please your customer.  Some people do not like the strong bitterness and pepper of the more intense oils and others find very sweet and delicate oils too bland for their taste.  However, there is no right or wrong here. The countries of origin recognise that there is excellence in each style of oil and their award schemes for extra virgin olive oil are divided into categories to reflect the different styles.

Judy is also the author of REMARKABLE RECIPES – From the people who really know about extra virgin olive oil – the producers, where you can find it out on Amazon (US & UK), Waterstones (UK), and iTunes.  You can visit her website to learn more.