Most Commonly Asked Questions About Olive Oil
Are olives fruits or vegetables?
Olives are fruit, grown on the olive tree, olea europaea. Olive trees have been cultivated for thousands of years, and were already plentiful during biblical times. Plucked from the tree, the olive is extremely bitter, and virtually inedible. Prior to eating, olives are typically cured, either in brine,water or in oil. Freshly picked olives can also be stir-fried to remove some of the bitterness before eating.
Where are olives grown?
Major olive producers in the world include countries which border the Mediterranean Sea (e.g., France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey), as well as California and in South America. It is reported that Thomas Jefferson tried but failed to cultivate olive trees in his native Virginia.
How is olive oil produced?
The traditional method of extracting olive oil from the fruit is virtually the same today as it has been for thousands of years. At harvest time, which varies from region to region, olives are harvested by hand, and collected in nets placed around the foot of the tree. A day or two thereafter, the olives are taken to the mill. Giant stones weighing several tons are used to crush the olives and pits into mash.
The olive mash is then spread onto thin mats. These mats are stacked, and placed into a machine "press." As the press applies several hundred pounds of pressure, oil and water from the mash seep out of the mats, and drip into collection vats. In the traditional method, no heat is applied in the pressing--hence the term "first cold pressed." The oil is allowed to settle, and any vegetable water is removed either by centrifuge or decantation.
Oil extracted from the mechanical pressing of the olive is described as "virgin" olive oil, because it is pure, unrefined and unprocessed.
What are the differences among extra virgin olive oil, ordinary olive oil, and "light" olive oils?
Extra Virgin Olive Oil. "Extra" is the highest grade for olive oil--the best you can buy. The virgin oil produced from the mechanical pressing described above may be called "extra" if it has less than 1% free oleic acid, and if it exhibits superior taste, color and aroma. Thus, the "extra" in extra virgin olive oil means "premium," or simply, "the best."
Olive Oil. Ordinary "olive oil" is actually a blended oil product. Olive oil producers start with low quality virgin olive oils. For these oils to be fit for consumption, they must be refined using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. The resulting "refined olive oil" is largely colorless and tasteless. Before the resulting product is sold as "olive oil," the producer blends into the refined olive oil a percentage of quality virgin olive oil to provide color and taste.
"Light" or "Mild" Olive Oil. Light olive oil is a variation on ordinary olive oil. Producers of this product use a highly refined olive oil, and add less quality virgin oil than that typically used to blend olive oil. The only thing "light" about light olive oil is the taste and color; it has the same caloric and fat content as other oils.
Olive-Pomace Oil. Olive-pomace oil is the residue oil that is extracted by chemical solvents from previously pressed olive mash. This oil must be highly-refined to remove chemical impurities. Like ordinary olive oil, refined olive-pomace oil is enriched with virgin olive oil prior to sale.
Olive Oil Blends. Olive oil blends (e.g., canola oil enriched with some virgin olive oil) are sometimes used as a more economical substitute for olive oil (but not as a substitute for extra virgin olive oil). Because the production of good olive oil is labor intensive--the olives must essentially be picked by hand--the resulting product is more expensive than other vegetable oils. To offer a more economical product with some of the goodness of olive oil, some companies make olive oil blends. In an olive oil blend, the producer uses a base of a less expensive vegetable oil (e.g. canola oil) to which it adds a percentage (e.g. 25%) of virgin olive oil. These products have proven particularly attractive to restaurant and institutional purchasers where the small savings per tablespoon results in big savings due to the large volume they purchase.
What is the difference between filtered and unfiltered extra virgin olive oil?
Extra virgin oil may be consumed either in a filtered or unfiltered state. Filtration is the process by which the microscopic bits of the fruit of the olive are removed from the oil. Unfiltered oil will be cloudy until it settles to the bottom. Some consider unfiltered oil superior because of the added flavor from the fruit, while others say it shortens the oil's shelf life. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal preference.
Are all extra virgin olive oils the same?
No. Like wines, extra virgin olive oils can vary dramatically in taste, depending upon the type and quality of the fruit that is pressed, the time of harvest, the weather during the growing season, and the region from which the olives were produced.
Connoisseurs generally use the following adjectives in appraising extra virgin olive oils: mild, semi-fruity and fruity, depending on the flavor of the olive that can be detected. Further, some oils, such as the finer oils from Tuscany and Southern Italy, have a peppery finish that many appreciate.
What are the nutritional components?
A tablespoon of olive oil contains 120 calories, 14 grams of fat, and no cholesterol. Seventy seven percent (77%) of the fat in olive oil is monounsaturated, and nine percent (9%) is polyunsaturated fat; fourteen percent (14%) is vegetable-derived saturated fat. Virgin olive oils also contain the antioxidants beta-carotene and Vitamin E, as well as the phenolic compounds tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol.
What makes olive oil a superior product to other oils?
Three things make olive oil superior to vegetable oils: taste, nutrition and integrity.
Taste is the most obvious difference between olive oil and the commercially popular vegetable oils such as corn, soybean and canola oils. These oils are tasteless fats. You would not want to eat a piece of bread dipped in vegetable oil; for the same basic reason, many chefs refrain from adding tasteless fat to the foods they prepare. When you cook with oil, get the most flavor and texture you can.
Olive oil, especially extra virgin olive oil, adds a flavor and textural dimension lacking in other oils, making it a suitable substitute for butter and margarine in almost any recipe. In fact, more and more restaurants are serving extra virgin olive oil, both plain or flavored with salt and pepper, as an alternative to butter for bread.
Nutritionally, olive oil contains more monounsaturated fat than any of the popular vegetable oils. For more information on the nutritional qualities of olive oil versus other oils and fats, please refer to the last chapter in this booklet.
Moreover, vegetable oils are industrial, processed foods. Vegetable oils are generally extracted by means of petroleum-based chemical solvents, and then must be highly refined to remove impurities. Along with the impurities, refining removes taste, color and nutrients.
Extra virgin olive oils are not processed or refined. It is said that you do not make extra virgin olive oil, you find it. Extra virgin olive oil is essentially "fresh squeezed" from the fruit of the olive tree, without alteration of the color, taste, and nutrients or vitamins. Because of the integrity of the product, and its antioxidant components, olive oil will keep longer than all other vegetable oils.
How does olive oil compare with butter or margarine?
Butter and margarine are essentially fats like cooking oils. A tablespoon of ordinary butter contains twelve grams of fat, of which 8 grams (66%) are saturated fat. In addition, a serving of butter contains 33 mgs of cholesterol.
Saturated fat and cholesterol have been linked to increased levels of low density lipoproteins (LDLs)--the "bad cholesterol." Thus, compared to butter, a serving of olive oil contains much less saturated fat (only 2 grams) and no cholesterol. The comparison with margarine is more difficult because the fat breakdown in margarines varies by manufacturer and ingredient. Margarine typically contains approximately 10 grams of fat per tablespoon. However, to solidify the vegetable oils used to make margarine, the oils have to be hydrogenized. In the hydrogenization process, trans fatty acids are created. Trans fatty acids have a double whammy effect of increasing LDLs and lowering the high density lipoproteins (HDLs)--the "good cholesterol" (see discussion of health issues in last chapter of this booklet).
Can olive oil be used to replace butter and margarine in recipes?
Yes! Butter and margarine have a pleasant taste, and there are certain uses of butter and margarine for which there is no satisfactory replacement in the American Diet--buttered toast at breakfast comes to mind. ?Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been described as "buttery" by many consumers in taste tests. Extra Virgin Olive Oil can be used in place of butter or margarine in many recipes, such as on vegetables, rice, potatoes, and--yes--even corn on the cob.
How do you store olive oil?
Olive oil should be stored in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, olive oil can keep for at least two years. It is, however, at its peak within a year of production, and is its most flavorful for the first two months. Olive oil should not be stored in the refrigerator. If chilled, olive oil will become cloudy and eventually solidify or crystallize. Should this happen, the oil is perfectly fine; just leave the oil at room temperature for a time to restore it to its natural state.
Can olive oil be used in baking recipes that call for butter, margarine, vegetable oil or shortening?
Yes! Try olive oil in your muffin and cake and cornbread recipes (but not in recipes in which butter is the principal flavor like butter cookies or pound cake).
Can olive oil be used to "grease" a pan in place of butter or vegetable oil?
Can avacado oil or macadamia nut oil be used in place of olive oil?
Yes! These relatively new oils are very healthy and taste great too! We like to use avacado oil in salad dressings and pan fried potatoes. We use the macadamia nut oil on broiled fish and asparagus.