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Fat Guy

Quality of olive oil and its effects in cooking

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Over here, we've been discussing suggestions for "everyday" olive oil. A side discussion got started on the question of how much impact the quality of your everyday oil has on cooking.

I did three very casual comparisons tonight, using my everyday olive oil and one recommended by slkinsey that was three times as expensive. My everyday is Edda, an olive oil from Lucca. The more expensive one is Frantoia, from Sicily. Edda is US$20/gallon (well, $19.99) and Frantoia is about $60/gallon (computed out from its $15.99/liter price).

Test number one was trying both drizzled on a piece of bread. The Frantoia was better. Not that the Edda was bad. They were also not entirely on-point comparable. The Frantoia has a strong olive fruit flavor, whereas the Edda is stronger on the peppery notes. But the Frantoia also has a cleaner taste, and the Edda has a somewhat greasy mouthfeel.

Test number two was vinaigrette. Here I would not necessarily have picked one over the other. The peppery component of the Edda came through clearly, whereas its negative qualities were masked. The Frantoia's fruitiness was diminished a lot by being in a vinaigrette, and most of its subtlety and structure were not easily detectable. It would have been very easy to pick the samples blind, so there was a difference, however the characteristics that make a naked olive oil better did not entirely translate into vinaigrette superiority.

I also cooked two batches of home fried potatoes (chopped potatoes, onions, salt, pepper and olive oil). I was making them for dinner anyway, so I just did it in two pans. I made the mistake of eyeballing rather than measuring the oil, so it's not clear to me that I had the same quantity in each sample. I wasn't particularly able to tell the difference between the two batches. I think it's possible that the peppery component of the Edda was masked by the fact that there was actual pepper in the preparation. Not a flavor characteristic as such, I did think the Edda batch was oilier/greasier. I'm guessing I just used more, but maybe not.

I then combined the batches, doubled back and made three piles of home fries on my plate. On each pile of warm home fries I drizzled a little olive oil: Frantoia on one, Edda on the other, and some very expensive French (L'Ostal Cazes, $48 per liter) olive oil that I just got the other day on the other. Here the hierachy asserted itself very clearly -- moreso even than when I had tastes the Edda and Frantoia raw. The little bit of heat really activated the aromas and showed each oil's good traits clearly.

These are just some casual observations to get the discussion started. I'd love to hear any observations you all have had in this area.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Great post. The oils you compared are all very good and your testing was fair. I have a favorite oil that I like. It is from Apulia. Its Piccolo Molino Olio di Bitonto. Very green, very peppery. About 15.00 per 750ml.

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I pretty much judge olive oils by how they do sauteeing vegetables, which of course in turn flavor the oil. Things like onions, mushrooms, etc., either in combination, or separately.

My house oil is the Arbequina from Fairway, because I find that things sauteed in it simply become delicious. (I am very curious, though, to try the two oils that you mentioned, FG.) And I have found that for some things, a sautee in a blend of their Arbequina and their Kalamata Pelopnnese, like when tomatoes are involved, does the trick.

So just a suggestion that you try your oils on a batch of sauteed onions and mushrooms, and see how they fare with those. Of course I add garlic and fresh thyme (or other herbs) to what I sautee, but I've noticed over the years that sauteeing with these oils elicits a lot more "oohs" and "aahs" from people than you might expect.


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For sure cooking makes a difference in the way olive oils are perceived. And I think it's true that the more the oil is cooked, the more the oil's unique qualities are obscured. It would have been interesting if you had done a control sample with the potatoes using a neutral oil such as grapeseed oil.

Now, that said... To a certain extent, I do wonder whether using a better quality olive oil or an olive oil with certain properties contributes to the overall quality and characteristics of a dish in some undefinable way (this is what markk is talking about). For example, if you have two people making a pasta sauce and one person uses low priced but reasonably good supermarket-level olive oil, canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and fresh thyme from those little plastic containers, and the other person uses Frantoia Barbera, DOP San Marzano canned tomatoes, onions on the stem and hardneck garlic and fresh thyme from the greenmarket... The second guy's tomato sauce is going to taste a lot better. The thing is that any one of these ingredients on its own would be unlikely to make a big difference in the quality of the dish. Rather, it was the layering of one higher-quality ingredient on top of the other that made the difference.

Like markk, I think I can taste the difference in simple preparations between using one oil or another. But, more than anything else, I choose what I think of as a middle-priced olive oil as my everyday oil because I like to add a little raw oil off the heat and I'd rather not be bothered with having to use stock 5 different grades of olive oil. As Steven pointed out, a quick light drizzle of oil off the heat is the best way to showcase the qualities of an olive oil. I find that this practice greatly enhances the deliciousness of a dish (as does a quick swirl of raw butter off the heat in other dishes) and so I use this technique extensively. Something like Frantoia Barbera is excellent quality for use as a raw "finishing oil" for family meals at home, and really adds a lot. I'm only breaking out the $50/liter or hand-schlepped-from-Italy stuff for company and special occasions, and I don't care to use lesser grades of oil this way.


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I think there may be an analogy here to cooking with wine. It seems to me that if you cook with awful wine, that's going to drag your food down. And if you cook with water, you're not going to get the same result as cooking with wine. But then you go through a range of wine from good through very good through world class, and once you've cooked with it the higher-cost stuff is denuded of the characteristics that made it expensive in the first place: the subtle aromatics are gone and you're down to the more basic properties of good wine.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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....Something like Frantoia Barbera is excellent quality for use as a raw "finishing oil" for family meals at home, and really adds a lot.  I'm only breaking out the $50/liter or hand-schlepped-from-Italy stuff for company and special occasions, and I don't care to use lesser grades of oil this way.

I recall an episode of "Molto Mario" where Mario said almost the same thing. He said he uses good olive oil to cook with but saves the top-of-the-line olive oil to add as a finishing touch off the heat just before serving.


 

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your experience with the vinaigrette echoes my own. i'm finding that the quality of the vinegar makes a much bigger difference than the quality of the oil. i now use a good tasting but not fancy or expensive olive oil for vinaigrettes.


Notes from the underbelly

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Yes, I think if I had a salad and wanted to dress it in such a way as to show off a very expensive olive oil, I'd probably do something like just olive oil and a little lemon juice, plus salt.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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WRT salad dressing: I agree, if we're talking about the kinds of salad dressings we're likely to make these days (which tend to be lower in oil and to emphasize vinegar and other strong flavorings). The Italian way of dressing salad tends to be a lot more like what Steven suiggests: the greens are mostly dressed with oil, and then a little vinegar is added as a counterbalance. The point is to taste the oil.

WRT similarities to cooking with wine: There is definitely something there. Certainly it wouldn't make sense to cook with a $40/liter olive oil, because everything that makes the oil special would be lost in the cooking process. However, there are some instances where it does make sense to cook with one wine over another wine (perhaps one wine has really heavy tannins and you either do/don't want that in your dish).

At the high end, the things that distinguish olive oils from one another are fairly subtle "top note" qualities that are likely to be lost in cooking. However, between the middle range (let's say $13-$20/liter) and the bargain basement there are often larger, more obvious differences. I've never found an olive oil selling at 10 bucks a liter that can compete with middle range oils such as the Barbera oils or the various Fairway oils (which are excellent) on intensity and depth of flavor, and that has to carry through cooking to some degree, just like it would if you chose a strongly flavored wine over a weak and watery wine. This is especially true if, as I suggest upthread, you add a little raw oil at the end (if I'm watching the fat content, I prefer to be miserly with the oil I use for cooking so I can add the balance raw at the end).

Of course, there are certain instances where it doesn't make sense to use any kind of olive oil at all. If I'm browning meat at high temperature, I'll just use something neutral and high-temperature stable like grapeseed oil.

This is perhaps getting a little off topic, but I wonder if others have this experience. As I've grown older I've started paying more attention to my fat consumption, and actively worked to reduce it. This has led me to various techniques where I try to get the maximum flavor impact out of my fat calories (such as the "adding some back in raw" technique I describe above) and has led me to the practice of using different fats, both animal- and plant-derived, in order to take advantage of their various properties and flavors. As a result, I find that I am much more sensitive to the flavor contributions of various fats than I have been in the past. There are certain dishes where I might previously have reached automatically for olive oil where I will now use a different fat because I don't want the olive flavor that now seems to come through so strongly. For example, unless I am specifically going for an Italian or Spanish effect, I don't cook eggs in olive oil (or even any of the filling ingredients if I am making an omelet).


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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I've had that experience and a related one. Fattiness, saltiness, sweetness, etc., are all to some extent relative measures. When I go to France, for the first few days I'm there all the restaurant food tastes incredibly salty to me. After a half-dozen or so meals, however, my palate recalibrates and the food starts to taste normal. Then I come home to the US and everything tastes undersalted for a few days. For me, the issue with fat is that I've grown less able to tolerate large amounts of it in a single sitting. It has become gastrointestinally unpleasant, it makes me tired, etc. I've actually started dispensing my cooking olive oil from one of those Spanish cruets rather than pouring it directly from the bottle. My purchasing habits, however, have not really caught up with this change, which has been occurring slowly for about three or four years (it started right around when I turned 35). I think I must be using half or a third as much oil now, so I probably wouldn't be spending any more money on oil annually if I switched to an oil that was two or three times as expensive. Interestingly, my butter consumption has increased in the same time period, I think because less of it provides me with more pleasure than more olive oil -- not that they're directly equivalent.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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