Tasting olive oil is a great way to understand the full sensory experience that comes with good quality extra virgin olive oil. It is also a good way to know if the oil you bought is extra virgin as it claims on its label. While you may view olive oil as simply an ingredient, and as such be hesitant to taste it on its own, sipping oils like this is best way to experience the unadulterated tastes and characteristics of your oils without the complications other foods bring.
Olive oil awards season is currently in full swing, and many consumers are right to trust these events as relative indicators of olive oil quality, taste and aroma. However, there are different styles of olive oil, ranging from delicate to fruity. In order to know which are your favourite and when to use them, you should taste them properly for yourself.
Start by pouring a small amount of oil, around one tablespoon, into a tapered wine glass or a similar vessel like a shot glass or espresso cup. Cup the glass in one hand, and cover it with the other, warming it for a minute or two and trapping the aromas inside. Once you have done this, uncover the glass and put your nose into the glass in order to take in the aroma or ‘nose’ of the olive oil. A good oil will smell ‘fruity’, it will leave traces of scents such as grasses and herbs for you to smell.
Next, you must take a substantial sip of the oil so that you taste the oil all over your tongue and mouth. Breathe in to pull air through the oil to activate more aromas, and then close your mouth and breathe through your nose to activate even more aromas as your mouth and nose interact. Additionally, letting the olive oil sit in your mouth will let you experience the second important characteristic of ‘bitterness’.
Bitterness indicates a fresh oil, determined by the ripeness of the olives that went into the oil. The level of bitterness desired comes down to personal preference, so make sure to find the balance between bitter and the nutty, green fruit notes that manifest as fruity characteristics once the oil is in your mouth. If the oil tastes like stale nuts or crackers at this point, it has gone rancid and should not be consumed further as it has ‘gone bad’. Other defects include metallic, musty or vinegary tastes.
Now you may partially or wholly swallow the oil. The third important characteristic of a good oil, ‘pungency’, is experienced at the back of the throat as a peppery sensation. This is a chemical sensation not unlike the ‘burn’ of chilies and just as enjoyable once it is understood. Pungency can range from being very mild or delicate, causing just a tingle at the back of your throat, to intense enough to make you cough.
Once you have tasted oils plain, it is often enjoyable to pair them with various foods, like bread, cheeses, salad greens or grilled meats, to unlock the full potential of oils. Remember that different oils will be ideal with different foods, in much the same way as wines. For example, an intense oil that does not pair well with bread does not indicate it won’t work well with meats or as an ingredient in a pasta dish (read more about the different categories of olive oil here).
Tasting olive oils like this will help to understand the true value of this fruit, as well as enhancing your future culinary experiences that involve the subtleties of olive oil. Always be on the lookout for well balanced oils that include fruitiness, bitterness and pungency in harmonious measure while avoiding metallic, musty and rancid oils. Olive oil is best enjoyed fresh and early in its life, so make sure that you put your your oils to good use rather than leaving them to gather dust on your kitchen shelf.