EVOO. It's that classic-yet-trendy ingredient in almost every healthy recipe. After a trip across Europe, I learned that there's a lot more to extra-virgin olive oil than just a healthy(er) oil.
My olive oil journey began in Barcelona's Gothic Quarter with a visit to Oro Líquido (which translates to liquid gold) - the mecca of high-quality olive oil. The shop owners come from families with long-standing olive oil history, and now curate the highest-quality oils from all over Spain, creating one of the largest collection of olive oil in the country. Here, I got a quick olive oil education from one of the owners about how to identify the quality of oil, how to taste it, and why oil from Spain is the best.
Then, I continued to France and visited Moulin du Calanquet, a family-run olive oil mill in Saint-Remy de Provence to see how olive oil is made, and what France does differently.
In between, I took a Paella cooking class with a chef in Barcelona who has worked in a 3-Michelin starred restaurant (ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world), and been a private chef in London for celebrities (like Dodi Al Fayed's family). Spanish cooking begins with oil and garlic, so she gave us a few tips about cooking with olive oil.
Here's what I learned along the way.
NOT ALL OLIVE OIL IS MADE EQUAL
Not surprisingly, olive oil purchased in grocery stores in America isn't great oil. If it says "extra-virgin olive oil" then it only has to be a portion extra-virgin... the rest can be whatever, even other kinds of oil. 😱 According to a 2011 study by the University of California, the top five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brands in the United States failed to meet the basic international standard 73% of the time... that includes brands that are probably in your pantry, like Bertolli. And rumor has it that the Italian mob has its hands in some Italian olive oils, blending it with other lesser quality oils. But in Spain, it must be 100% extra-virgin olive oil. That doesn't mean that there is no high-quality EVOO in the US - but it's tougher to find than in Europe.
You can find the best olive oils in the world here.
TO DETERMINE EVOO'S QUALITY, TASTE IT LIKE WINE (DRINK IT)
Like fine wine or coffee, the best way to determine the quality of olive oil is to taste it. And by taste it, I mean drink it straight. Yep.
Pour a bit in a small glass or into a spoon
Smell the oil - what aromas do you smell? Any fruits or spices?
Take a sip! Let it roll across your tongue... what do you taste?
Now swallow some and see what the aftertaste is, or even what it feels like as it goes down your throat
Just like a wine, EVOO has different flavors throughout the taste. Perhaps it tastes like bananas at the beginning, freshly cut grass in the middle, a smooth texture throughout, and a strong peppery flavor at the end.
Really high quality olive oil might actually be very bitter and make you cough after you taste it. And in fact, bitter is better! An olive straight off the tree is extremely bitter - too bitter to eat in its natural form.
The best one that I tasted was a limited edition oil from The Barcelona Olive Oil Company - so naturally, I spent way to much money on it and brought back way too many bottles.
NEVER COOK WITH EVOO
I've always used extra virgin olive oil for everything. And I mean everything. But apparently that's not a good idea!
Throughout Europe and among chefs, extra-virgin olive oil is never used for cooking. That's what virgin olive oil is for. EVOO has a lower smoke point, which means that it starts to smoke and burn at around 325-375° F. When it burns, it begins to release toxins (just like anything that burns), and loses some of its nutritional value. This is according to my Barcelonan paella chef. So - throughout Spain, they use EVOO for dressings, dips, and spreads and always cook with virgin olive oil.
That said some recent research shows that EVOO may still be okay to cook with - but the jury is still out.
If you want to learn more, here's some great quick-hit info about olive oil.