Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Dig In - Olive Oil

Every Wednesday I will be writing a post under the heading "Dig In".   In these posts I will go into a little more depth on subjects I think might be useful for aspiring or experienced cooks alike.  Today's topic is olive oil.

Olive oil is a good fat.  And it should be consumed in moderation if for no other reason than it is very calorie dense.  About 120 calories a tablespoon.  Olive oil is monosaturated.  For now this is all you need to know about the FAT thing.   I am not going to be like other people in the world of food media who leave you hopelessly confused and anxious about fat - usually for the purpose of selling you more of some questionable and overpriced foodlike substance.  People buy these products because they want to be healthy (that's good) and they are seduced by the ads and labels.  And then they eat too much of the products because they are "low fat" or have no saturated fat and then they GET fat and then we haven't made any progress at all, have we?

So for today we are not going to worry about trans fats or poly- or mono- or un- saturated fats or even Omega 3's or 6's or whatever it is that nuts and flax seeds have.   We are just going to learn more about olive oil, which has been making food taste better for the human race for at least 3,500 years.  And if it was good enough for the ancient Greeks and the Romans and the Jews and Jesus, it should be good enough for you and me.  And besides,  olive oil is essential if you are making salads and cooking with vegetables.

North Americans have not been eating olive oil forever so we have a lot to learn.  Like what kinds are best?  And how to use them?  This is a worthwhile discussion to have.  You could write a whole book about it and some people have.  So I will try to keep this simple.  If you want to Dig In even deeper, you could start by going to Wikipedia.  Or you could read a book, such as Olive Oil -  From Tree to Table, by Peggy Knickerbocker.  (No I do not get kickbacks from Amazon - just want to make things easy for you.)

Most of the world's olive oil comes from Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia and Turkey, in that order.  The price of olive oil can vary widely, depending on where and how it was made and what kind of olives were used.   Flavor, fragrance and acidity are all important factors in determining quality.  Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO in foodie language) is considered the highest quality type of oil.  In the last few years there have been scandals about some unscrupulous producers or importers trying to pass off cheap oil as the good stuff.

So my advice is to be cautious when buying olive oil.  Read labels carefully.  Just because the label says "imported from Italy" it does not mean the oil was produced in Italy or necessarily that the oil is better.   Much good oil comes from countries other than Italy.  Buy from a reputable and knowledgeable merchant.  Ask questions about what the label means.  If you are buying especially expensive oil,  ask to taste it first. 

Over the last twenty years or so  I have gotten a lot of my olive oil from Bill's Imported Foods on Lake St. in Minneapolis.  Being a moderate and frugal Midwesterner, I favor varieties that are middle of the road in flavor and price.  I usually buy 3 liter cans and use the same kind for both cooking and salads.  I keep a quart bottle of it right near the stove at all times and store the rest in a cool dark place.  I love my spout with the little ball inside.  I never have to unscrew a cap and the pouring is very controlled.

I admit I am still playing the field and have not yet settled down with one or two brands.  For a while it was Minerva from Greece and the last few years I have favored Zoe from Spain.   I guess I just have issues with olive oil commitment. 

Since I don't really have a strong recommendation for you, I spent a little time perusing people's comments and reviews on Chowhound so you don't have to.  Some popular EVOO brands mentioned:  Whole Foods 365 brand, Colavita, Trader Joe's Santorini, Zoe.  One person referred to a recent Cook's Illustrated review, which recommended Columela EVOO for tossing in salads and other "raw" applications, stating that  "it has a full, beautiful, fruity flavor but it is hard to find and a little pricey at about $20." For cooking or sauteing several reviewers liked Da Vinci 100% pure olive oil.  (Note - "pure" is not the same as EVOO)

Do you have a favorite EVOO?  What does it cost?  Do you use different kinds of oil for salads and for general cooking?  What do you think we all need to know about olive oil?  Your comments are welcome.

Meanwhile:  Here is a simple and basic vinaigrette recipe.  Double it and keep extra in the refrigerator so you will be salad ready at all times.
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
3 T. good quality wine vinegar
1 t. prepared Dijon mustard
a few grinds of fresh pepper
1/4 t. kosher salt (or a little more, to taste)
Optional: 1/2 t. finely minced garlic or 1 T. minced shallots

Tomorrow: Hands On:  How to poach an egg


  1. I read the Cook's Illustrated article as well, and love the Columela EVOO for "raw" applications. It certain made a difference in the taste and the smell (when storing the vinaigrette for awhile). But I admit to using da Vinci 100% pure for cooking. It stands up to the heat applied in most recipes very well.

    As a side note, if anyone is traveling to Boston soon, there is an olive oil only shop on Newbury St. It is fabulous! They sell olive oils of all price ranges and flavors - as well as sizes (up to 5 gallon drums). And they will ship purchases as well.

  2. As I've mentioned, I'm a novice (and a frequent commenter, too) and I just wanted to tell you that I'm learning so much from your blog! And I'm not overwhelmed at all, like I normally am when I look into cooking blogs or books. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for your great blog, Peggy! I'm looking forward to reading it regularly. I loooove olive oil and use it all the time in salads and for cooking things at a moderate heat. However, I have been given to understand that it does not hold up well at high temps.

    For high heat cooking, such as stir-fry, popcorn or roasted/broiled veggies, I use sunflower oil. Spectrum Naturals has an excellent organic sunflower oil specifically for high heat cooking. It is also lower in saturated fat than an average sunflower oil. It can be found at pretty much any health-food store or co-op, and I've even seen it in some regular grocery stores.

  4. manda - thanks for the lovely compliment. My goal is to not be overwhelming, so that is great feedback for me. Baby steps. Remember baby steps.
    Laura -- I have seen reference to the high heat thing too. I think the "pure" olive oil, as opposed to the EVOO, stands up better to high heat. I use sunflower oil, too. I will have to study up a bit more about oils and heat.