Glossary: The Characteristics of Great Extra Virgin Olive Oils
Extra Virgin – The highest quality grade of olive oil, which according to standards established by the IOC, the EU, and other governing bodies, must meet a series of chemical requirements (free fatty acidity of 0.8 percent or lower, peroxides at less than 20 milliequivalents per kilogram, etc.), and be able to pass a panel test which demonstrates both that it possesses some detectable level of olive fruitiness, and that it is free of taste flaws.
Bitter – One of the three characteristics, together with fruity and peppery (or pungent), which are mentioned as desirable in the definition of extra virgin olive oil endorsed by the IOC, the EU, the USDA and many other institutions. Bitterness is often associated with the presence of antioxidants and other health-promoting constituents of the oil. A recent survey of olive oil consumers in northern California performed by UC Davis sensory scientists revealed that the majority of consumers disliked oils with marked bitterness or pungency, in sharp contrast to olive oil experts.
Fruity – One of the three characteristics, together with bitter and peppery (or pungent), which are mentioned as desirable in the definition of extra virgin olive oil endorsed by the IOC, the EU, the USDA, and many other institutions. Fruity refers to a taste or aroma reminiscent of fresh olives. An olive oil must demonstrate some level of fruitiness in order to be legally eligible for the extra virgin grade.
Peppery (or pungent) – One of the three characteristics, together with fruity and bitter, which are mentioned as desirable in the definition of extra virgin olive oil endorsed by the IOC, the EU, the USDA, and many other institutions. Pepperiness is often associated with the presence of a number of health-promoting constituents in the oil. A recent survey of olive oil consumers in northern California performed by UC Davis sensory scientists revealed that the majority of consumers disliked oils with marked pungency or bitterness, in stark contrast to the preferences of experienced olive oil tasters.
Extraction – A process by which oil is removed from olives (as well as other fruits, nuts, and seeds). Two major types of extraction exist for olive oil, mechanical and solvent extraction, of which the mechanical process alone is allowed for extra virgin oil. In mechanical extraction, the olives are crushed (see Milling), the resulting paste is stirred to allow oil microdroplets to coalesce (see Malaxing), after which the oil is separated from the paste with a centrifuge or press. In modern extraction systems, centrifuges have replaced hydraulic presses as the technology of choice because they are more efficient and easier to keep clean. Nowadays very few quality oils are made with presses. (See also Cold-pressed.) Solvent extraction is widely used in making seed oils and in olive pomace oil.
Filtration – The process of removing sediment—tiny bits of olive pulp, pit, and skin—suspended in the oil, as well as making an oil more brilliant by running it through a cloth or mesh filter. There is considerable disagreement even among producers about the importance of filtration: improper filtration can attenuate certain flavors and aromas, and many makers of fine oil prefer simply to rack their fresh-pressed oil repeatedly. Other top oil-makers swear by filtration, which can significantly increase an oil’s shelf life and seems to improve its stability during storage.
Malaxer, malaxing – The second major phase of the olive oil extraction process after milling, during which the olive paste made from ground-up olives is mixed or stirred to allow the microdroplets of oil in the paste to coalesce into larger drops that are more easily extracted. A modern malaxer is a stainless steel trough with a fan screw turning along the bottom. Malaxing lasts twenty to forty minutes, depending on the cultivar, the condition and ripeness of the olives, and other factors. Shorter malaxing times help minimize oxidation and free acidity, while longer times increase oil yield and may improve oil flavor but typically reduce shelf life. (The term is derived from the ancient Greek malassein, “to make soft.”)
Free fatty acidity (FFA), free acidity – An important chemical parameter for determining the quality of an olive oil, which is part of the olive oil grading system of the IOC, the EU, the USDA, the Australian Olive Association, and many other bodies that oversee olive oil quality. FFA measures the percentage by weight of the free oleic acid (see Fatty acids, Oleic acid) contained in a sample of olive oil. In general terms, FFA indicates the breakdown of the basic fat structure of an oil, whether because of poor-quality fruit (due to bruising, olive fly infestation, fungal attack) or, most commonly, by delays between the harvest and the crush. Although a low FFA is no guarantee of good quality, as a rule of thumb the higher the FFA, the more likely the oil is to be of poor quality. The level of 0.8 percent FFA set by the IOC and other regulatory bodies for the extra virgin grade is far too high to guarantee good oil:
excellent extra virgin oil frequently has an FFA of 0.2 percent or lower, and anything over 0.5 percent is likely to be inferior
Polyphenols – A generic term for a range of phytochemicals contained in olive oil and other natural substances, many of which demonstrate antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Polyphenols are widely held by medical researchers to have a range of positive health effects against such pathologies as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease. Because they protect against oxidation, polyphenols also protect olive oil against spoilage.
WORDS THAT MEAN VERY LITTLE IN TODAY’S OLIVE OIL LANDSCAPE
Cold-pressed – An outdated production term, now used for marketing purposes and largely devoid of meaning. Until a half-century ago, when oil was made with hydraulic presses, after the first pressing had removed the best oil, the nearly spent paste was drenched with hot water (as Saint Sanctulus of Norcia taught) and pressed again, yielding a second-press oil of inferior quality. Nowadays, extra virgin olive oil is “first-pressed” and “cold-pressed” almost by definition. (EU regulations state that “cold-pressed” can be used only when the olive paste is kept at or below 27 degrees Celsius during the malaxing process—a level respected by nearly all serious producers—and when the oil is actually made with a press, nowadays a rare occurrence.)
Excerpt From: Tom Mueller. “Extra Virginity.”
First-press – An outdated term, now used for marketing purposes and devoid of meaning. A half-century ago, when oil was made with hydraulic presses, after the first pressing the nearly spent paste was sloshed with hot water and re-pressed, producing an inferior second-press oil. Nowadays, extra virgin olive oil is “first-pressed” and “cold-pressed” almost by definition.
WORDS THAT DEFINE FRAUD IN THE OLIVE OIL INDUSTRY
Deodorized oil, mild deodorization – Olive oil, typically of low quality, that has undergone a refinement process to remove unpleasant odors and flavors. By law such oil can only be sold as refined olive oil, but it is frequently sold, illegally, as extra virgin oil. Many cheap supermarket oils worldwide consist in large part of deodorized oil. One of the most popular deodorizing methods is the SoftColumn refining system by Alfa Laval, the leading producer of extraction equipment for olive oil and other vegetable oils; the company markets SoftColumn for seed oils, but it is reportedly used widely to deodorize olive oil as well. Because deodorization is done at far lower temperatures (40–60 degrees Celsius) than normal refining, and because a number of different deodorizing techniques exist, deodorization is often difficult to detect with chemical tests. New chemical analyses have recently been introduced (a ceiling on the amount of alkyl esters by the EU, measurement of DAGS and PPP by the Australian Olive Association) that should help to reduce the prevalence of deodorized oil—or at least force unscrupulous oil producers to develop new methods of deodorization.
Virgin Olive Oil – The intermediate quality grade of olive oil between superior extra virgin and inferior lampante, all three of which are technically known as virgin olive oils. Once common in stores, virgin olive oil has largely disappeared in recent years, as the de facto quality (and price) of extra virgin oil has dropped, and many virgin oils are now being labeled as extra virgin.