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Tasting Is Believing When It Comes To Olive Oil

Whether it's used as a sauté base, a dressing or a garnish, recognizing flavor variations amongst olive oils can really enhance your cooking.

taste-testing olive oil

Photo: donireewalker (Flickr)

Professional tasters sip oils straight, but if that seems too adventurous, you may opt for the simple bread-dipping technique.

Olive oil is an essential ingredient for many of us home cooks, but because it is such a commonly-used product, we often overlook its finer properties.

Invite several friends to your house and tell them each to bring a bottle of olive oil. Follow this guide for throwing an olive oil taste-testing party.

Buzz Words

Appreciating the qualities of olive oil means connecting it to the sensory experience — smelling the aromas, tasting the unique flavor variations, seeing the color and feeling the texture.

Flavors and aromas can vary widely between different olive oils. The three qualities of “good” olive oils are fruitiness, pungency, and bitterness. On the tongue, good oils will feel smooth and buttery. When swallowed, they should taste peppery. Good oils will smell of lemons, grasses, and fresh tomato plants. They can be described as herbaceous, floral or nutty.

“Bad” oils may smell and taste sour, rancid, vinegary, musty, or just flat. They could also feel overly greasy on the palate.

Color and viscosity are two more important variables. Color does not determine flavor or quality, but taking time to notice differences can only enhance your tasting experience. On the other hand, viscosity may indicate quality. Higher quality oils will be smooth and buttery, not runny or oily.

Becoming The Expert

With a clearer sense of olive oil’s properties, we can move onto the actual tasting.

Pour one or two tablespoons of the various olive oils into small cups, preferably glass. Notice how the colors of the oils vary. Is one greener, another more yellow? What about the viscosity?

Now focus on the aromas. Cup the tasting glass to warm the oil for a few moments. Swirl the cup, and then lean in close, taking a good whiff. Try describing the smells, thinking in terms of plants, herbs or fruits.

Next, sip the olive oil, making sure to get a decent mouthful. Tasting only with the tip of the tongue does not allow a full impression. Ideally, the oil should coat the tongue and mouth. (Professional tasters sip oils straight, but if that seems too adventurous, you may opt for the classic bread-dipping technique.) Pay attention to how the oil feels in the mouth before swallowing. Is it buttery and smooth? Is it greasy?

Finally, swallow some or all of the oil. Do you feel a spicy kick in the throat? You should, as pungency is an important property. Good olive oils may even be cough-inducing. Olive oil aficionados describe good oils as one-, two- or even three-cough oils!

Before moving onto the next olive oil, cleanse your palate with water and Granny Smith apple slices. Plain bread or crackers will work as well.

Proper Storage

After training your palate to recognize various olive oils’ unique characteristics, you want to make sure it doesn’t go rancid. Knowing proper storage methods is a must.

According to this study, olive oil should be stored in cool temperatures, away from light and without oxygen exposure.

Just like fresh produce, olive oil is perishable and tastes best when fresh. Use and enjoy it soon after you buy it, because even the “best” olive oils can go rancid.

Sarah Ostaszewski

Sarah Ostaszewski is a student of anthropology and fine arts at Indiana University. She dreams of fresh summer tomatoes from her family's garden, and she loves tasting unique ingredients, learning culinary histories, and tracing foods back to their roots.

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