Today's Paper Search Latest Core values App Traffic map In the news #Gazette200 Drivetime Mahatma Listen Digital FAQ Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles/Games Archive
story.lead_photo.caption Bottles of Brightland oils, made from California olives and labeled with the month and date of harvest, in the Los Angeles home of Aishwarya Iyer, the founder of Brightland. Photo by Adam Amengual (The New York Times)

When extra-virgin olive oil arrived in American kitchens around 1980, a set of myths came with it. You can't use it for everyday cooking. You can't use it for deep-frying. You must hoard your best stuff and bring it out only for occasional drizzling.

Not one of those turns out to be true: Olive oil is an excellent all-purpose cooking oil, but at the time it was too expensive for cooks to use freely.

In the meantime, the price has fallen, but global demand has grown far beyond supply, and the entire business has been transformed by technology, global trade and climate change. It has also been wracked by fraud, with millions of consumers around the world regularly paying for "extra-virgin" olive oil that is cut with inferior olive oil, mixed with cheaper oils, or colored with chlorophyll or beta carotene.

Labeling has become a minefield, despite efforts by the European Union to enforce rules and make meaningful distinctions among terms like "made in Italy," "imported from Italy" and "packed in Italy." The European Union's system of food certification (appearing as a DOP or PDO seal on a label) is relatively reliable. But the terms "extra-virgin" (meaning the very first pressing), "first-press" and "cold-pressed" are not as helpful as they used to be, as most producers now use centrifuges that produce purer and cleaner oils.

So now we are back in the realm of myth, as labels are ever harder to interpret and trust. For most of the olive oil on the American market today, even a truthful label says little about how it will taste or whether you will like it.

More than the flags on the bottle, more than the varietal, more than whether the oil appears grass-green or butter-yellow, many experts and producers now say the biggest factor in the deliciousness of olive oil is its freshness.

Assuming that the olives are healthy and of good quality, how quickly they go from tree to bottle to your cupboard may determine more about the taste of your olive oil than anything on the label (though oil labeled "extra-virgin" is still likely to be better than oil without that designation).

Olive oil should be poured lavishly and used up quickly, and experts say that freshness, more than color or price or place of origin, determines its quality. Photo by Andrew Purcell (The New York Times)
Olive oil should be poured lavishly and used up quickly, and experts say that freshness, more than color or price or place of origin, determines its quality. Photo by Andrew Purcell (The New York Times)

Olive oil is perishable, sensitive to light and heat, and begins to degrade as soon as it is exposed to oxygen. It is not like wine, improving with age, or like vinegar, which can last for years without a substantial change in flavor. Once opened, a bottle of olive oil retains its peak flavor for three to four weeks.

Understanding olive oil as a perishable product has two lessons for home cooks. One, we should try to choose olive oil according to how fresh it is; it should be consumed within two years of bottling. Two, we should be using much more of it, so that it doesn't languish in our cupboards, but is used up and replaced while it is fresh and vibrant.

"There's a saying about olive oil: 'Pour it with the elbow up high,'" said Lior Lev Sercarz, whose company, La Boîte, supplies top New York chefs with fresh spices and custom seasoning blends. His family produces their own annual supply of olive oil on a small farm in northern Israel.

"Don't use it sparingly," said said Nicholas Coleman, a trained olive oil taster and the former olive oil specialist for Eataly USA.

He said American cooks feared that using olive oil plentifully would make a dish taste flat or greasy. Instead, he says, its natural pepperiness accents flavors, as do lemon and salt.

"When it tastes great and has vibrancy and cleanliness and burn," he said, "it's going to heighten and evolve that dish, elongate it and enhance it."

In European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, the average person consumes about 20 liters of olive oil each year. (Americans go through less than 1 liter each.)

Contrary to what many American cooks have been led to believe, good oil should not be held in reserve for a little drizzling here and there, but used for all kinds of everyday cooking and for deep-frying. It has a smoke point of about 400 degrees, well above the 350- to 375-degree heat required for deep-frying.

It is hard for an average consumer to tell if olive oil is rancid, the scientific term for spoiled fats. Rancid oil can smell soapy, fishy or stale; professionals use terms like musty, fusty and winy to describe oil tainted with mold and fermentation. It can taste tannic, a flavor that many consumers confuse with the pepperiness associated with fresh oil.

But anyone can determine whether olive oil is fresh. Heat it in a pan, or pour it over a bowl of soup: When warmed, fresh oil smells like olives. There may be notes of asparagus or artichoke, more or fewer echoes of fresh-cut grass, but the fruitiness should be front and center.

Most large producers do not yet label with the date of harvest. Small producers, especially those who command the very highest prices, usually do. European producers must provide a "best used by" date on the label, usually two years from bottling, but there is no requirement to disclose how old the oil was when it was bottled. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not require any date labeling for olive oil. The best way to ensure you are buying fresh oil is simply to find a brand with date-labeling that you trust and stick with it.

"If you think about olive oil as something you choose the same way you choose produce, for freshness and quality, your life will change," said Sercarz, the spice merchant.

Even in desserts, he said, he prefers olive oil to butter, which is delicious in its own right but can muffle other flavors like spice and citrus. The olive oil cake in his new cookbook, Mastering Spice, spiked with orange, cardamom and black pepper, makes a persuasive argument that olive oil deserves a bigger role in our cooking.

"It is an ingredient, not a condiment," he said.

Shrimp Bathed in Olive Oil and Lemon Photo by David Malosh (The New York Times)
Shrimp Bathed in Olive Oil and Lemon Photo by David Malosh (The New York Times)

Shrimp Bathed in Olive Oil and Lemon

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed

¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 1 to 2 lemons)

2 pounds medium-large shrimp (26-30 per pound), peeled and deveined

Flaky sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

Freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, to taste

Torn or sliced crusty bread, for serving

Bring a shallow pot of water to a boil.

Pour the olive oil and lemon juice into a baking or serving dish.

Working in batches to prevent overcooking, boil the shrimp over high until just firm and opaque, 2 to 3 minutes, removing them to a colander with a slotted spoon. When all the shrimp are cooked, transfer them to the olive oil-lemon bath and gently mix to coat. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. The shrimp should be just covered with liquid; pour in more oil as needed. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

Just before serving, sprinkle with parsley and serve with bread, spooning some liquid over each serving.

Makes 8 to 10 appetizer servings or 4 to 6 main-dish servings.

This Greek-inspired cucumber and tomato salad uses olive oil three different ways. Photo by David Malosh (The New York Times)
This Greek-inspired cucumber and tomato salad uses olive oil three different ways. Photo by David Malosh (The New York Times)

Cucumber-Tomato Salad With Seared Halloumi and Olive Oil Croutons

1 pound slightly stale sourdough or country bread, thickly sliced

½ cup PLUS 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use, plus more as needed

Kosher salt

4 to 5 cups cucumber chunks, preferably thin-skinned, such as Kirby or Persian

Ice cubes or an ice pack

2 to 3 pounds cherry tomatoes, halved, or ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into chunks

8 to 12 ounces halloumi (see note)

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons thinly sliced red onion or green onions, plus more to taste

2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh mint or basil

Ground black pepper

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus more as needed

Make the croutons: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut each slice of bread into 1-inch-wide strips. Tear each strip into 1-inch pieces, removing the crust as you go if it is very thick. Transfer to a large baking sheet (or use 2 sheets, if necessary to prevent crowding). Drizzle with the 5 tablespoons olive oil and toss until evenly coated.

Bake until golden brown and crunchy on the outside, 18 to 22 minutes, rotating the baking sheet and turning the croutons halfway through so they brown evenly and checking them every few minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with a light sprinkling of salt, if needed. Let cool on the baking sheet.

Make the salad: In a colander in the sink, toss the cucumbers with about ½ teaspoon salt. Place a bag of ice cubes or an ice pack on top to chill and firm the cucumbers. Let drain while you prepare the other ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes with about ½ teaspoon salt. Toss and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

Slice the halloumi about ¼-inch thick, then cut into bite-size strips. Smash and peel the garlic cloves and combine with ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil in a small bowl to steep.

Pour off excess liquid from the bowl holding the tomatoes. Add drained cucumbers, red onion, fresh herbs and 2 tablespoons vinegar to tomatoes and toss well. Remove and discard the garlic cloves from the extra-virgin olive oil, add the oil to tomatoes and mix well. (If desired, the salad can be made up to this point and refrigerated for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Drain off excess liquid in the bottom of the bowl before proceeding.)

When ready to serve, add about half the croutons to the salad and toss so they can absorb the liquid. Taste and adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper, extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar.

Cook the halloumi: Line a plate with paper towels and lightly coat a nonstick skillet with extra-virgin olive oil. Heat oil over medium-high until rippling. Working in batches, cook the halloumi strips on both sides until golden-brown and crusty, about 1 minute per side. Remove to the plate to drain.

Taste and add more croutons to salad as desired. (If there are too many, the salad will be starchy; too few, and it will be wet.) At the last minute, toss in the halloumi, add another good glug of extra-virgin olive oil, mix gently and serve immediately. (If desired, transfer to a clean bowl or platter for serving.)

Makes about 8 appetizer servings or 4 main-dish servings.

Note: Halloumi, sometimes labeled "bread cheese," is a Mediterranean cheese that holds its shape when cooked. It is available in blocks at cheese shops and in the dairy section of many supermarkets.

Spiced Olive Oil Cake With Orange Glaze Photo by David Malosh (The New York Times)
Spiced Olive Oil Cake With Orange Glaze Photo by David Malosh (The New York Times)

Spiced Olive Oil Cake With Orange Glaze

Nonstick cooking spray

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons ground ginger

¾ teaspoon ground fennel OR cardamom OR coriander

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil

⅔ cup whole milk

2 eggs

2 tablespoons dark rum

Freshly grated zest of 1 orange PLUS 4 tablespoons orange juice, divided use

½ cup confectioners' sugar

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, spices, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper.

In a separate bowl, whisk the oil, milk, eggs, rum, orange zest and 2 tablespoons of the juice until smooth.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry. To prevent clumps, stir together starting from the center of the bowl, gradually drawing in the dry ingredients. Mix just until smooth. The batter will be thick. Pour into the prepared loaf pan.

Bake on center rack for 1 hour, rotating after 30 minutes, or until the cake is just firm and dry on top and a tester inserted near the center comes out clean.

Meanwhile, make the glaze: In a measuring cup with a pouring spout, whisk together the confectioners' sugar and remaining 2 tablespoons orange juice until smooth. The texture should be runny.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out. While the cake is still warm, drizzle the glaze over the top. Let cool completely to set.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Food on 09/18/2019

Print Headline: Well-oiled cooking


Sponsor Content

COMMENTS - It looks like you're using Internet Explorer, which isn't compatible with the Democrat-Gazette commenting system. You can join the discussion by using another browser, like Firefox or Google Chrome.
It looks like you're using Microsoft Edge. The Democrat-Gazette commenting system is more compatible with Firefox and Google Chrome.