electronic Gourmet Guide

Olive Oil

by Prof. Steve Holzinger


An old saying goes, "You plant vineyards for your children and olive trees for your grandchildren." Which brings me to the good news and the bad news. The bad news is that the price of olive oil is going up. A drought in Spain, and parts of France has destroyed hundred-year-old olive orchards. There is no quick fix for this, olive trees take many years to mature and fruit. One expert predicts that the effects can last for years, with costs doubling and worse. After all, the reduction of the world supply will have an easily predictable result. Look to see blends of olive and other oils like canola or cottonseed touted as "lighter" and "more affordable." Italian, Greek and African plantings, as well as those in California are all doing fine, but as supply and demand raises the world price, the price of these oils must rise too. That's the bad news.

There is lots of good news. California olive oil, or at least a good portion of it, can hold its head up with the best the world has to offer. A friend on the West Coast tells me that Umberto Gibins recently opened a restaurant called Frantoio in Mill Valley, California, that produces a great olive oil, right where you can see it milled in a ten ton press. You can see it through a glass wall in the restaurant. I'd love to see the menu, and better yet eat the food.


I tasted some California Olive Oils, as well as Italian and Spanish oils at the kitchenwares store of Williams Sonoma. They have a tasting bar for oils and vinegar. If you remember, in an early eGGsalad, I told you that oils and vinegar were like colors on a palette, that allow you to create delicious new flavor combinations. Olive oils can be mild, delicate, light or fruity in flavor, or earthy and rich, bitter, pungent, green leafy or sweet. At Williams Sonoma, they have a basket of cubes of crusty bread, and you are invited to taste any of the oils they have. In addition to the olive oil flavor, some are infused with fruits, herbs and spices, adding to the complexity and pleasure of the tasting. There is no charge and no pressure to buy, and I got some well informed help when I asked for it. Olive oil is graded by a taste panel of experts, and by the amount of free acidity (oleic acid).

GradeNameTaste ScoreFree Acidity gms/100gm
Extra Virgin Olive Oil6.51
Fine Virgin Olive Oil5.51.5
Virgin Olive Oil (Semi Fine)3.53.3

Olive oil is obtained only from olives, and cannot be blended with other oils, or be made by a solvent process, if it is to be called olive oil. Olive pomace oil, which is much cheaper and less flavorful, is extracted by solvents and refined for human consumption and may be blended with olive or other oils. It has its uses, for which it is well suited, such as grilling, where the flavor of the smoke overcomes any delicacy that a Virgin Olive Oil would have.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil preserves the fruity flavor, color and other rich flavors and aromas. It is the best tasting, but less is produced, so guess what? Yes, you will pay a premium price for this natural oil, so use it where the flavors and aromas will be shown to the best advantage, like on salads, for seasoning or drizzling on light and delicate dishes to add richness without cloying. Fully flavored dishes such as stews, soups, tomato sauces are better enjoyed with the more robust fruity flavors of Fine Olive Oil, and for marinating, grilling and barbecuing, pure Virgin Olive Oil is perfectly compatible, and more economical because it is less rich in the volatile compounds that evaporate with heat. Having said that, I admit that I love to sauté with an olive oil that perfumes the air while I'm cooking with it! Maybe I'm the only one to benefit from the "soul" of the food when it's cooking, but I feel entitled! It's like grinding coffee, the fragrant aroma when I grind it, doesn't get to the cup, but to me it's the best part. The most general rule of thumb to follow is that when you want to taste the full, delicate flavor of any olive oil, it's best added to the cooked dishes in the final stages. So, a splash to begin with and a splash to end with, along with the wine, which follows the same rule is the way to go. Cooking boils off delicate aromatic flavors in both of these natural products.

olive oil

So Olive Oil is delicious and has a unique aroma, so what! "I knew that," you will tell me. Sure you did, good cooks have been using it for centuries. Of all the good news about olive oil, perhaps the most heartening, is that it is so good for you. Olive oil contains absolutely no cholesterol. Studies indicate that a Mediterranean diet low in saturated fats such as butter, lard, and animal fats, but rich in mono-unsaturated fats such as olive oil, in addition to grains, fruits and vegetables, helps keep the artery clogging LDL ("bad cholesterol") low while maintaining healthful levels of HDL ("good cholesterol"). The HDL has a preventative effect on cardiovascular illness because it may help to eliminate the LDL from the blood by carrying it to the liver. In addition, many medical researchers and nutritionists agree that olive oil is a good source of vitamin E, which may protect against cancer and heart disease.

What has amazed me, is that light Extra Virgin Olive oils can even be used to bake with! The first I heard of this was a few years ago when the Wednesday Food page of the New York Times published a recipe for pound cake made with olive oil. That completely changed my way of thinking about olive oil. After all, if there was any of the heavy, earthy, old-fashioned green flavor of olives in the oil, you could taste it in a pound cake. Technology and quality control has changed that forever. I am including a couple of outstanding baking recipes from the International Olive Oil Council that will blow your minds. Would you believe moist, tender carrot cake that is so easy to make it only takes 2 bowls and a wooden spoon—yet tastes good enough to be a birthday cake! Just to show it is no fluke, try the Apple Nut Cake, also made with homemade apple sauce. When it comes to recipes, there must be a million good recipes for olive oil. The most obvious place to start is in my recipes for mayonnaise and vinaigrette sauce from one of the earliest eGGsalads. I will include them in this issue, just for your convenience. Another early recipe from eGGsalad is from a chef I worked with at my college for years. Here it is again, verbatim:

"My grandmother used to make this for lunch for me, and I love it," he told me. This is a man who was president of the Chefs de Cuisine, a professional chefs organization. Cook a little (or a lot) of garlic in some olive oil, add the broccoli and cover with water. Simmer until it is very tender. Add a generous amount of cooked pasta to the cooked broccoli in the water and lots of fragrant grated Parmigiana Reggiano and some more extra virgin olive oil on top. Salt and pepper, of course.


So you can see a splash to start and a splash to finish is the way to go. By now, we have your culinary juices flowing, so a healthy snack might be to toast or grill some slices of crusty bread, smash a clove of garlic and rub it on the bread and drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over it. Did you say you had a little slice of sweet onion and some red ripe tomatoes? Or did I hear you say you were planning to melt some cheese over it, and just a little glass of whatever wine you happen to have open? Don't forget the pepper mill. This is serious snacking. Give me a can of sardines in olive oil and it's lunch time. By the way, if you are going to spend good money for sardines (I love 'em) get the ones packed in olive oil. The packers are going to pack only the best sardines in olive oil. Stands to reason. Pay a little more, get a lot more, is the way I see it.

Is your BBQ grill ready to go? The minute I can go outside without a sweater, I declare BBQ Grill season to be open. How about some Beef Kebabs with Zucchini and Cherry Tomatoes, Chicken Kebab with Pineapple, Corn and Red Peppers, or Shrimp Kebab with Green Onions and Sweet Potatoes, recipes all courtesy of the International Olive Oil Council.

I cannot leave the subject of olive oil, of which I know I have only scratched the surface, without recipes for the classic Tapenade and Aioli Sauces. I'm also going to do an olive oil based Sauce Hollandaise for you, that I call a Warm Mayonnaise with dill to serve with cold poached Salmon or other fish.


Steve's Olive Oil Recipes

* These recipes are courtesy of the International Olive Oil Council.


All About Olives & Olive Oil


© 1996, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.

This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.

Copyright © 2007, Forkmedia LLC. All rights reserved.


This page modified February 2007