Tasting to Discern the Differences for Culinary Use

There are a number of factors that impact the flavor profile of olive oil. Getting to know these factors will make you a more informed olive oil consumer.  If you are already aware of how wine is judged, you are well on your way to understanding how olive oil is also judged. When it comes to both olive oil and wine, it is the sensory properties: color, bouquet, and taste that matter most. All of these things are dependent on how ripe the fruit was when harvested, the way they were handled and kept after picking, and also how the oil itself was extracted from the olive.

Tasting olive oils is the best way to determine quality and flavor.  When you are doing a tasting, keep the following things in mind:

Color: While professionals don’t evaluate an olive oil based on color, it is part of the learning experience for consumers.  The color of the oil provides a number of clues. For example, an oil that is tinged green is done so by the chlorophyll present in young olive fruit. The oil will be more yellow, due to carotene levels, if mature olives were used to create the oil. Once an oil starts to become old it will have a red tint due to oxidation.  Feel free to take notes on the various colors of the oils you are tasting. Determine for yourself whether color is related to taste and quality.

Temperature: A professional will warm oils to 82-86 degrees Fahrenheit prior to a tasting because heat will bring out the oil’s aromas. While this is not necessary for a consumer’s tasting, it is important to at least warm up the tasting cup in the palm of your hand prior to starting.

Aroma: An oil’s bouquet is determined by the various volatile compounds found in it. These compounds include: alcohols, aldehydes, esters, and keytones. It is easily to distinguish an oil that has been processed at high temperatures, improperly stored, chemically extracted, or exposed to light because the bouquet created by these aromatic compounds will dissipate.  Prior to actually tasting the oil, take approximately 15 seconds to simply inhale the aromas it offers. This is done by covering the top of the tasting glass with your hand while swirling its contents around, releasing the aromas. Quickly remove your hand and inhale the aromas it releases. After the initial 15 seconds, write down the impressions it gave you and then continue to inhale to either confirm those initial impressions or expand on them.

Taste: The taste of an olive oil is the combination of its bouquet and the four “gustatory senses:” salty, sweet, bitter, and acidic (tart). Now is the time for you to actually take a sip of the oil. Be sure to let a small amount of air into your mouth with the oil and let it touch all the surfaces of your mouth by swirling it around with your tongue. You should note the initial and middle palate flavors prior to swallowing and the after-palate sensation once you do swallow it. If you’d rather not swallow the sample, feel free to spit it out like wine tasters do. The proper way to taste olive oil is without bread, but if you must use it be sure to pick one that has no flavor and is cut into small pieces. You want to taste the oil, not the bread.

After you’ve completed your tasting, you might be wondering how the oils you tasted can have such different flavors. According to the head of the California Olive Oil Tasting Panel, an oil’s flavor is greatly impacted by the growing region, seasonal variations in weather patterns, the olive variety, the maturity of the fruit at the time of harvest, and the milling and storage methods of the finished oil.

In general, oils made from green (unripe) olives have flavors often described as grassy, artichoke, or tomato leaf. Oils made from ripe olives are more often described as buttery, floral, or tropical. While determining the pleasant flavors of good quality olive oil, trained professional tasters can also determine negative characteristics. If, during a professional tasting, flavor defects (caused by frozen conditions, excessive heat, or oxidation) are found, the oil will not be certified as extra virgin.

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