Anyone who appreciates good food knows that a careful balance of harmonious and contrasting flavors is essential. That starts with choosing not only the best raw ingredients, but ones that work well together. Similar to how you might pair wine with food, olive oil has so many unique characteristics that can make or break a meal, it deserves particularly careful consideration.
While there are no hard and fast rules on the subject, consider the following guidelines before heating up your frying pan.
Intensity is probably the most important element to bear in mind. A mild, buttery olive oil would be lost in a strong, garlicky stew, while a peppery and assertive option could easily overpower a delicate green salad.
In general, extra virgin olive oils fall into three categories of intensity: mild, medium, or robust.
- Mild olive oils have a delicate, buttery, or floral taste, with a light peppery finish. This is typically what I choose for baking, since it’s a healthier option than many other neutral vegetable oils, without imparting a strong taste itself. It’s also great for popping popcorn or making mayonnaise.
- Medium olive oils can be bitter and pungent, but fade to the background quickly, with a light peppery finish. This is my pick for sauteing or roasting vegetables, making pesto, and tossing pasta.
- Robust olive oils are on the upper end of intensity, often with a strong, lingering peppery bite. I prefer these options for dipping bread, caramelizing onions, and slow simmering braises.
Provenance is a large contributing factor to the flavor of the olive oil. Beyond what it says on the bottle, you can expect certain countries to produce a predictable range of tastes due to the climate and soil conditions.
- Spanish olive oil is typically a golden yellow color with a fruity, subtly nutty flavor.
- French olive oil is often more mild, pale green, and overall light.
- Italian olive oil tends to be a darker green with herbaceous, grassy notes
Don’t forget that the time of harvest also affects the taste, with earlier pressings being more bitter and pungent, while later batches become more buttery and smooth.
It’s a lot to juggle when you just want to make a simple dish. Thankfully, you can’t go too far wrong; even if it’s not the most complimentary pairing, simply starting with quality European olive oil ensures delicious results every time.
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