How to Taste Olive Oil
Olive oil. The quintessential every day, pantry staple. We use it for everything – sautéeing, frying, marinating, grilling, dressing, drizzling and even baking. What would we do without it? But, how much do you really know about your beloved olive oil, and do you know how to taste olive oil correctly?
Seeing that the oil comes from the olive fruit, no two oils will taste identical – the same way no two wines are the same. And as you can taste, decipher and discern with wine, the same can be done with olives.
If you’re really into your olive oil, and pride yourself on choosing good quality oils, then further your knowledge a little and host your own olive oil tasting and show your friends how to taste olive oil. Grab a few different bottles of your favourite extra virgin olive oils and get up close and personal with them.
How to Taste Olive Oil
First things first, what does one require to host a tasting?
The professionals have specific glasses that are required by the International Olive Oil Council, and these are pretty characteristic. Firstly, they are cobalt blue in colour, so that the oil inside can’t be examined and no premature conclusions can be made.
The base is also wide enough to allow the glass to fit into a heating unit (ideally olive oils are examined between 26 ºC and 30 ºC), and to sit cradled comfortably in the palm of a hand, with a narrow mouth that forces the aromas upwards.
How essential are these for your first foray into tasting?
Not very, in our opinion. If you have wine glasses, these will work perfectly. You’ll want to add a generous tablespoon of oil per glass, cup the glass in one hand, cover the mouth of the glass with the other hand and get swirling. The swirling heats up the oil slightly, to release the aromas, while your hand over the glass traps them in the glass.
Do this for about a minute, then stick your nose in and take a big whiff. You will pick up notes like fresh cut grass, tropical fruit, artichokes, herbs, green apple or even green tomato characteristics. These flavour notes will tell you that the oil is fresh and full of life, as well as giving you indications as to what varietal of olive it was made from.
Now, you taste…
Don’t be afraid of this one – give it a big gulp and swish it around your mouth the way you would mouthwash. You need to coat the inside of your mouth, as well as your tongue. Then, as you might with wine, part your lips slightly and suck air through the oil, then close your mouth and exhale through your nose. This retronasal method of breathing will expose more flavour notes.
You can now swallow some, or all, of the oil and begin to notice the pungency of the oil.
Pungency directly relates to the peppery notes of an olive oil and is detected in the throat.
Despite being referred to as a chemical irritation – because it tickles your throat – it is actually a positive attribute in the oil. The level of pungency can also vary from a gentle tingle to a kick with enough intensity to make you cough. Olive oil aficionados will often refer to a one-, two-, or three-cough oil depending on the pungency level.
Identifying Bitterness (it’s a good thing)
The next aspect of olive oil’s flavour is bitterness. Have you ever tried an olive straight off of the tree? Don’t. Its bitterness will take your head off. And because olive oil is made from fresh, uncured olives, the oil can have varying degrees of bitterness. Like with the fruit, the riper it is, the fewer bitter and sweeter notes you will pick up and the younger and greener it is, the more intense the bitterness will be.
The last piece of the tasting puzzle is fruitiness, because, well, olives are fruit. These fruity flavours will present themselves in a manner of different ways from buttery to nutty, to fresh tropical notes. The more fruity notes an oil has, the more likely it is to be called a robust oil.
Cleanse the Palate
Once you have tasted your selection of oils individually, it’s time to cleanse your palate with either sparkling water or slices of Granny Smith apples. You can now further your tasting experience by pairing each oil with food and noting what that does to the flavour. You could offer a small selection of food items to taste with the oils.
Bread is always a good tasting vehicle, as is a simply boiled potato, but think also of a small piece of seared steak and even undressed lettuce leaves. The more food items you taste with each oil, the more you will be able to distinguish which works best.
Robust, big flavoured oils will shine when used on food such as steaks or drizzled over soups and sauces. Medium oils, meaning oils with a slightly more tempered fruity note, will work everywhere, especially when used in cooking. Delicate oils that have a very subtle fruitiness, are best partnered with potatoes, fish and salads.
Once you are tasting and eating, look at how each piece of food works (or doesn’t work) with the oil. Is there some sort of contrast? Is it a good or bad one? Is there harmony – does one flavour overwhelm or mask the other? Is it all balanced? These are questions you can ask yourself and your guests as you delve into the exciting world of learning how to taste olive oil.
See our selection of some of South Africa’s best local olive oils.