Feb 232012

Have you kept up with all the news about fake olive oil or low-grade olive oil being passed off as extra virgin? I have and even though I just had my first official taste testing, I do test each bottle I buy. So you’re probably thinking – what do I do if my olive oil doesn’t taste right? TAKE IT BACK TO THE STORE. I do and they always take it back and refund my money.

Like with any food, trial and error is the key to finding and consuming fresh and tasty products. One important thing to remember about olive oil – it is a food and is perishable – fresh is best. It is harvested in late fall and early winter in the Northern Hemisphere and late spring and early summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There are many factors that affect flavor and quality from weather to milling to bottling to storage.

There are many books and articles on olive oil tasting, but for home taste testing I prefer the methods used by Culinary Professional, Deborah Krasner, in her lovely and well-researched book, The Flavors of Olive Oil: A Tasting Guide and Cookbook.

Deborah helps make taste testing simpler and more accessible. She developed her own classifications that focus on the flavors of oil. This is a more useful way of matching oils with foods. Her categories are:

  • Delicate and Mild – Subtle and short-lived, not to be confused with tasteless. Goes well with tender lettuces, fresh peas, mild cheeses.
  • Fruity and Fragrant – Blend of rich tastes and smells of apples and green leafy vegetables. Drizzle on pasta, mixed salads, oranges, dessert cheeses, chicken breasts.
  • Olivey and Peppery – Taste and smell begins as rich olive and finishes in the throat with a zing. Use for roasting meats, in pasta sauces, on breads, on whole grains.
  • Leafy Green and Grassy – Taste and smell of strong herbs. Dress pasta with just oil, garlic, and cheese; strong-flavored salads; garnish for bean soups.

Now that you know what flavors to look for and some of the foods those flavors enhance, follow these tips for holding your own extra virgin olive oil taste test at home.

  • Purchase and assemble the extra virgin olive oils you wish to test. Deborah Krasner suggests you choose oils that are estate-bottled (processed and bottled on the premises where they were grown) from at least four different countries. I recommend picking evoo from several countries around the world, not just Mediterranean. There are so many selections to choose from – be adventurous.
  • Buy a bunch of the 5oz. wax coated paper cups. The kind you find in some folks bathrooms. They are good for testing since they don’t alter the taste and conduct radical temperature changes. Make sure you buy enough so that you do not reuse a cup.
  • Pour about one tablespoon of oil in each cup. Make sure that one tablespoon is sufficient to completely coat your tongue and your throat when swallowed. You must be able to engage taste, touch, and smell with each sample. If you need more oil in your cup, add it.
  • The best time to have an evoo taste test is mid morning. Your senses are sharper at that time of day.
  • Do not eat anything spicy or strongly-flavored for several hours before a taste test and nothing about an hour before. Cleanse your palate with a green/Granny Smith apple and some plain water before beginning.
  • Hold the cup in both your hands to warm to body temperature. Cover the opening with your hands as well to trap the aromas.
  • Put your nose in the cup and smell the aromas.
  • Take a sufficient amount into your mouth to swirl around and coat your tongue.
  • Suck in a little air and swallow.
  • From the time you inhale the first aromas to the time you swallow the oil take note of the flavors, scents, and feel of the oil.
  • Record your findings. If you smell, taste or feel something different than you see listed in any olive tasting guides or glossaries, write it down just like your senses picked it up. Olive oil is produced in more and more places around the world and the sensory guidelines are bound to add new attributes and defects over time.
  • Take a bite of apple and a sip of water and try the next oil.
  • After you have completed the round, do it again, but this time in a different order. You might be surprised at the differences you pick up the second time around.
  • Now that these bottles have been opened, store them in a cool (not cold) dark place. With time the tastes you picked up may change a little or a lot. Save your notes and if you still have some oil left in about six months (hopefully not) conduct another test and you will have some good information on what an oil tastes like as it ages. Some become more mellow and others not so nice.

May the sun shine through your branches.