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Authentic Southern Italian Cuisine
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Olive Oil: The Secret to Great Italian Flavor

March 15, 2013 Carlino's Restaurant no comments
“Understand olive oil, and you’ll understand the roots of Italian cuisine”

Italian food is famous for its luscious tomato-based sauces and endless variations on flavorful pasta dishes, but both tomatoes and pasta are relative newcomers to Italy compared to the olive. Olives have been grown throughout the Mediterranean since antiquity, and the oil they produce is at the heart of some of Italy’s most beloved foods. It’s everything from a salad dressing to a condiment for bread to the secret ingredient that makes a grandma-style pizza crust so delicious. Understand olive oil, and you’ll understand the roots of Italian cuisine.

Types of Olive Oil

As you go down your local grocery’s oil aisle, you’ll notice that olive oil, unlike other vegetable oils, varies tremendously in color and viscosity. Pick up a bottle and hold it to the light; you’ll see shades from a lush emerald green to chartreuse to topaz yellow and even pale straw. Color doesn’t indicate quality, but it does usually show how much an oil has been processed. Pale olive oils have usually been more refined and don’t have the complex flavor and lower smoke point of darker oils.

Olive oils are also graded based on how the manufacturer produced them. The grades include:

Extra-virgin olive oil

Only oil physically pressed from the olives without chemical treatment, heating or refining can bear this “extra virgin” label. Fine Italian olive oils also pass a rigorous taste test from experts whose palates are as sensitive to nuances in olive oils as a wine taster’s. These experts ensure quality and uniformity; every extra-virgin olive oil sold in the U.S. has gone through this quality check.

Virgin olive oil

Virgin olive oil is functionally similar to extra-virgin olive oil, but it has a less pronounced flavor. Virgin oils contain no more than 1.5 percent acidity.

Pure olive oil

Blended from pressed virgin olive oil and high-quality production oil, pure olive oil is an economical choice for general use. With less than 2 percent acidity, it has a relatively mild flavor.

Olive oil

Produced with heat and solvent extraction as well as physical pressing, refined olive oil has very little of the oil’s characteristic flavor but has a much higher smoke point.

Olive Oil in the Kitchen

The key to using olive oil well is in choosing the right oil for the dish. The pronounced flavors, high cost and low smoke point of unrefined extra-virgin oil are perfect for dressing a salad, drizzling over crusty Italian bread or adding a grace note to a lemon cake, but it wouldn’t be suitable for oil-poaching fish or pan-searing a veal cutlet.

A good guideline to remember is that the less processed the oil, the closer to serving time the oil should be added. The fresh, grassy notes of an extra-virgin oil are perfect to dress a salad just before it reaches the table, while pale refined oil is best for low, slow cooking techniques. For dishes that fall somewhere between those extremes, a good pure olive oil is perfect. A grandma-style pizza doesn’t need to stay in the oven long to develop its uniquely delicious and crispy bottom crust, so it takes a high-grade pure olive oil or a good virgin oil that lets its taste shine

Extra-virgin olive oil has complex flavor notes that some aficionados have compared to fine perfumes, and the best of them are as valuable to connoisseurs as fine wines. Heating them destroys the volatile components that give them their nuanced flavor, so save your best oils for the table, not the stove.

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