Last Chance Foods: How to Pick the Best Italian Olive Oil

Friday, February 07, 2014

From 2012 to 2013, Americans consumed an estimated 294,000 metric tons of olive oil, most of which was imported from Italy. But how do you know if Italian olive oil is really Italian? A New York Times report recently claimed that a lot of Italian olive oil actually comes from countries including Spain, Morocco and Tunisia. What’s a home cook to do when looking for an authentic Italian olive oil?

Restaurateur Lidia Bastianich offered some characteristically sensible advice for choosing an olive oil: Trust your sense of taste.

“We have an apparatus, which is our mouth, which is quite telling,” said the Emmy-winning television host. “To each of us, it tells a different story because we have a different story. So I think it’s pretty safe to say that everybody should sit down, and taste the olive oil, and look for the aroma, the intensity in the mouth, the viscosity in the mouth, and what they love."

While Bastianich admitted to having a veritable apothecary of Italian olive oils in her own pantry, she said that the average home cook only needs about three types — one from each region of Italy.

“I would take one from the north of Italy — from Liguria, the lake regions, Friuli, where I come from — and because of the climate, the olive oil tends to be buttery and lighter in that area,” she explained.

Central Italy, around Tuscany, is known for producing olive oils with robust, peppery flavors. “Unless it burns the back of their throat, those Tuscans don’t like it,” she said. “And what that oil is really good for is for tomatoes, grilled stuff — kind of on the grill, off the grill steak, chicken.”

(Photo: Lidia Bastianich/Diane DeLucia)

Then in Southern Italy, near Sicily, olive oils tend to be grassy, herbal, and intense. Bastianich, the author of Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, recommends those for soups.

In addition to region, the grade of olive oil also matters. She explained that extra virgin olive oil has the lowest amount of oleic acidity, making it more aromatic and smooth. “It means the tannins are less, there’s less residue, the acidity is less because of the tannins, and it just tastes better,” Bastianich said.

And because heat breaks down the flavonoids that give extra virgin olive oil its delicate, balanced flavor, “you should alter it as little as possible,” she said. “You should really use it as raw.” That’s also why cold-pressed olive oils are always better.

If you’re purchasing lower grades of olive oil, which are marked “virgin” or “regular,” save those for high-heat applications like braising. Bastianich said that she sometimes uses lower-grade olive oils to sear or saute meat initially. Then she removes the food from the used olive oil and finishes the dish with extra virgin oil. That’s also a more judicious application of the more expensive, high-grade oil.

Once you’ve selected the olive oils that you like the best, be sure to store it in a way to maximize freshness. “Olive oil is molecularly unstable so therefore it oxidizes very quickly," Bastianich explained. "That’s why it’s good for us — because it has a hydrogen that looks for oxygen." That quality also means that it will also go rancid if stored improperly.

“Even if you buy [olive oil] in a big bottle, put it in smaller bottles, where the bottles are full,” she advised. “[Put it] in a green bottle or dark bottle or keep it in a dark place... and in a cool place.”

Once you’ve selected the flavor of olive oil that you like the best, try it out in Bastianich’s recipe for olive oil and rosemary spaghettini, which is below.

Spaghettini all’Olio e Rosmarino

This is a perfect example of a minimal- ingredient recipe that is delicious and easy. It’s based on one of the primary flavors in Italian cuisine: rosemary. You will often see rosemary used in flavoring meats and roasts, because it has such an intense and rich fl avor. But in this recipe, cooked in some butter to release its aroma, it makes a perfect sauce for spaghetti. Be sure to top it with some grated cheese. This is a great dish!

Serves 6

  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound spaghettini
  • 2 tablespoons extra- virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 bushy rosemary sprigs, needles stripped from the stems (about 3 tablespoons)
  • 6 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano- Reggiano

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. When you begin preparing the sauce, begin cooking the pasta. In a large skillet, over medium- high heat, melt the butter in the olive oil. When the butter is melted, add the rosemary, and cook until the needles are sizzling and the rosemary is fragrant.

Ladle in 1 cup of pasta water, and simmer to reduce by half. Stir in the parsley. When the pasta is al dente, remove with tongs directly to the skillet. Toss to coat the pasta with the sauce. Remove the skillet from the heat, toss with the grated cheese, and serve.

Excerpted from LIDIA’S COMMONSENSE ITALIAN COOKING by Lidia Bastianich. Copyright © 2013 by Tutti a Tavola, LLC. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Lidia Bastianich

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Comments [8]

joel from NYC

In my opinion the BEST place in the NYC area to taste and buy EVOO is Fairway. They have several stores and have a tasting bar where you can try all the oils they have for sale. Look them up on the internet to see where the closest store is.

Feb. 11 2014 08:48 AM

First of all, she or her son own Eatly. She is plugging her place. Everyone also knows, those who do this, that the best olive oils come from Greece and the middle east. The italian oils are all blended with greek oil.

Feb. 10 2014 10:32 PM

As everyone in America gets restaurateur wrong on television and one person has now managed to get the speling wrong in print, will we see the wrong spelling in the next edition of Merriam-Webster as the correct version?

On an unrelated point, does anyone really believe that all those (cheap) first cold pressing extra virgin olive oils are really first cold pressing extra virgin olive oils?

I'd like to see some sort of rating system on bottles. Confusingly, the Capatriti I have on my shelf as I write this is called "first cold pressing extra virgin olive oil" and has an acidity rating of .1%-1%. Just to make sure you know they are absolutely positive that all olives in it are definitely "first cold pressing extra virgin olives", it purports to come from Italy, Greece Spain and for completeness, Tunisia.

Feb. 10 2014 09:22 AM
Peter Tatiner from Highland Park, NJ

All quite informative but where or where does one find such oils and, for those unable to taste before we buy, which labels do you recommend?

I live in central NJ, near New Brunswick.

Feb. 10 2014 09:21 AM

After travelling to Spain, I would have to say that it is far better than Italian Oils, particularly the spanish oil that has a slight grassy taste(very slight)

Feb. 10 2014 08:43 AM
Jack from Georgia

Amen to that - is consistently reliable and truthful.

Feb. 09 2014 05:34 PM

There were a number of errors and items of poor advice in this interview.

First, your guest said that extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) is "rated" from 0 to 1% oleic acidity; virgin olive oil from 2-3%; and regular olive oil is anything higher than that. First, EVOO is defined by multiple chemical characteristics and a sensory test, not just on what she calls oleic acidity (usually referred to as free oleic acid or free fatty acids (FFA)). Second, the cutoff for EVOO is ≤0.8% FFA, and for virgin olive oil ≤1.5% FFA. Confusingly, "regular" olive oil (which is refined olive oil) normally has 0% FFA, because the refining process removes all free fatty acids.

She then offers an erroneous explanation for what FFA means: "the tannins are less, there's less residue, the acidity is less because of the tannins — it just tastes better." None of these things are true. First, there are no tannins in olive oil. There are phenolic compounds, which are related to tannins, but they are not related to FFA in any way. And phenolics are a *positive* attribute of EVOO: they give it its pungent and bitter bite, preserve its quality on the shelf, and play a major role in its healthfulness. FFA are also unrelated to the amount of residue in EVOO: EVOO comes either unfiltered, or filtered or "racked" to remove residues, but all of these oils can be high or low in FFA at the time of pressing. And despite the name, FFA are unrelated to whether an oil tastes acidic or not. Instead, FFA is a marker of the breakdown of the structure of the fats in the oil, and are a marker of oils made from bruised, poor-quality, or microbially-infected fruit. Oils with higher FFA will tend to taste bad, but not because of tannins, residues, or an acid taste.

She also said, “Olive oil is molecularly unstable so therefore it oxidizes very quickly. That’s why it’s good for us — because it has a hydrogen that looks for oxygen." The first sentence is true; the second sentence is false.

Her advice to taste oils and choose one you like is good, but needs a caveat. Scientific studies show that because most of the so-called EVOO on the market today is actually garbage, American consumers have come to mistake the taste of slight rancidity and of oils made from fruit infected with yeasts or molds (the "fusty" flavor characteristic) as indicators of quality oil, rather than the reverse. See e.g.:

Her advice to find someone trained in good olive oil to educate your palate is sound. She suggested Eataly; other good choices in NYC include O Live Brooklyn and The Filling Station (though the selection of EVOO at TFS is limited). In the listening area there is also F'Olivers (Rochester), Saratoga Olive Oil (Saratoga Springs), and The Crushed Olive (Sayville or Stony Brook).

A good place to learn the basics of EVOO is the website of Australian olive oil competition judge and chemist Richard Gawel:

Feb. 09 2014 12:14 PM
Jules from rural America!

Heard this the other day while visiting the big apple.... great segment!!! Eataly is a great place to buy EVOO for NYers, but if you don't live in NYC then or is good... living in a rural area has its drawbacks!!! :p

Feb. 08 2014 09:18 PM

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Last Chance Foods covers produce that’s about to go out of season, gives you a heads up on what’s still available at the farmers market and tells you how to keep it fresh through the winter.


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