An Introduction to Olive Oil Tasting

In the first in a series of articles addressing basic consumer questions about olive oil written by leading experts, Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne explains olive oil tasting and food-pairing.
Nov. 3, 2010
Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne

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Olive oil qual­ity has been promi­nent in the news recently, with head­lines telling us that our extra vir­gin olive oil might not really be extra vir­gin.

A pall of sus­pi­cion has been cast over the kitchen cup­board; how are we to know if that pretty bot­tle of olive oil has been lying about its extra vir­gin sta­tus? What’s a con­sumer to do?

It is true that there is some seri­ous hanky panky going on in the ranks of extra vir­gin olive oil. The issues of adul­ter­ation, mis­la­bel­ing and reg­u­la­tion are all real, com­plex and very impor­tant.

That does not mean, how­ever, that there is no hope for olive oil con­sumers until all these big issues are resolved. On the con­trary, by learn­ing a lit­tle, con­sumers can ben­e­fit a lot.

The log­i­cal place for an olive oil edu­ca­tion to start is with tast­ing. All the read­ing in the world isn’t going to mean a thing unless you can con­nect it to the sen­sory expe­ri­ence — the aroma and taste of olive oil.

Professional olive oil tasters sip the oil straight from lit­tle blue glasses that look like votive can­dle-hold­ers from your favorite café. Although ulti­mately we must remem­ber that olive oil is an ingre­di­ent in food, tast­ing it straight does have the advan­tage of giv­ing you a com­pletely undis­guised taste of the oil.

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Olive Oil Tasting Glass

Don’t be scared. A lit­tle sip of olive oil won’t hurt you — it’s actu­ally very nice once you get used to the idea — and it will help you learn to rec­og­nize char­ac­ter­is­tics with­out the com­pli­ca­tion of other fla­vors.

The aro­mas of olive oil are a crit­i­cal part of its fla­vor. The best way to appre­ci­ate them is to pour a lit­tle bit of olive oil (a table­spoon or two) into a small wine­glass (or nifty blue tast­ing glass if you have it).

Cup the glass in one hand and cover it with the other to trap the aro­mas inside while you warm it up. Hold it, swirl it, warm it for a minute or two. Then stick your nose into the glass and take a good whiff of the aroma or nose” of the olive oil.

You may notice the smell of fresh-cut grass, cin­na­mon, trop­i­cal fruits or other aro­mas of ripe or green olive fruit. This is a good time to point out that the word fruity” in olive oil can refer to veg­etable notes, i.e. green olive fruit, as well as to ripe fruit notes. So think of arti­chokes, grass and herbs as fruit” when you taste olive oils!

Now take a sip of the oil. Don’t be too wimpy about it; if you don’t get a decent amount you won’t appre­ci­ate all the qual­i­ties of the oil because it is only get­ting on the tip of your tongue. You ide­ally want to get the impres­sions of the entire mouth and tongue.

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Suck air through the oil to coax more aro­mas out of it, and then — this is impor­tant — close your mouth and breathe out through your nose. This retronasal” per­cep­tion will give you a whole bunch of other fla­vor notes. Retronasal per­cep­tion is pos­si­ble because your mouth con­nects to your nose in the back. Now swal­low some or all of the oil.

Pungency is a pep­pery sen­sa­tion, detected in the throat, so swal­low­ing some oil is impor­tant. Pungency is a pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic of olive oil. It is a chem­i­cal irri­ta­tion, like the hot­ness of chilies, and equally appeal­ing once you get used to it.

Once you start to get into that spicy kick, it is hard to imag­ine life with­out it. Pungency can be very mild — just the tini­est tin­gle — or it can be intense enough to make you cough. Olive oil afi­ciona­dos will some­times refer to a one, two, or look out, a three-cough oil.

The third of the three pos­i­tive attrib­utes of olive oil, in addi­tion to fruity and pun­gent, is bit­ter. Bitterness, like pun­gency, is also an acquired taste. As any­one who has ever tasted an olive right off the tree can attest, bit­ter is a promi­nent taste in fresh olives.

Curing olives for the table, in fact, has to start with a deb­it­ter­ing process. Since olive oil is made from uncured olives, vary­ing degrees of bit­ter­ness can be found; oil made from riper fruit will have lit­tle to no bit­ter­ness, oil made from greener fruit can be dis­tinctly bit­ter.

American taste hori­zons are broad­en­ing; we are explor­ing bit­ter­ness with foods like dark choco­late, bit­ter salad greens and now, robust olive oils.

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The fruity char­ac­ter­is­tics you may notice in the mouth include nutty, but­tery and other ripe fla­vors and a fuller spec­trum of green fruity notes. Another char­ac­ter­is­tic that is most pro­nounced in this retronasal per­cep­tion, is ran­cid­ity — we will explore that when we look at the com­mon defects of olive oil in another arti­cle. The tra­di­tional palate cleanser between olive oils is water, plain or sparkling, and slices of Granny Smith apple.

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NYIOOC Taster Lina Smith

Once you have tasted an olive oil plain, the next step is to taste it in com­bi­na­tion with food. This is where olive oil comes to life, as one of the fla­vors in a dish.

Wine presents a good anal­ogy: a wine that is great with food might not be appro­pri­ate as an aper­i­tif. Olive oil is the same: some­times an olive oil that seems over-the-top pun­gent and bit­ter by itself or with bread, is per­fec­tion itself when used to top a hearty bean soup.

Pairing olive oils and foods is an entire dis­cus­sion of its own, but for a great learn­ing expe­ri­ence, try three dif­fer­ent olive oils — one del­i­cate, one medium, one robust — with a vari­ety of items. Good choices are warm boiled pota­toes, fresh moz­zarella, ripe toma­toes, bread, warm cooked white beans, salad greens, sea­sonal cooked veg­eta­bles, grilled steak, poached or grilled chicken; pretty much what­ever is for din­ner. Cook things sim­ply, with­out a lot of added sea­son­ings, but be sure you have some sea salt on hand.

Now taste pieces of the same food dipped in each of the oils. Notice how the fla­vors inter­act. Is it a har­mo­nious mix? A con­trast? Does one fla­vor over­whelm the other, or do they bal­ance well? 

This is a fun thing to do with a group of friends: you can taste together and com­pare impres­sions. Add a cou­ple of wines — a red and a white — to com­plete the pair­ings, and you have your­self a din­ner party.


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