There are many grades of oil that can be marketed as olive oil. To qualify as "Virgin" an olive oil must be cold-pressed, produced solely by the mechanical crushing of the whole olive and its pit, solely excluding the use of any chemical solvents. The varying degrees of virginity are determined by the amount of oleic acid contained. The highest grade, "extra virgin" is reserved for oils containing less than 1 gram of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil, or less than 1%. Olive oils that have more than 1 gram but less than 3 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams of oil are considered "virgin." If the percentage of acid exceeds 4%, it can no longer be labeled "virgin." Today we also may find olive oils labeled as "extra light virgin olive oil." This description is misleading because it is only light in color or flavor, not in calories or fat. A label that reads only "olive oil" or "pure olive oil", without the word virgin, refers to a blend of refined olive oil with a small amount of virgin oil included.
First Cold Pressed
The term "first cold pressed"or "cold pressed" was a term used in olive oil processing countries referring to the oil obtained using hydraulic presses during the first press at room temperature. Today hydraulic presses are not used as commonly as the centrifuge system and almost all olive oils are produced during a first pressing. Also the word "cold" is allowed to be placed on a label whenever the oil is pressed at a temperature below body temperature (98.6 degrees F).
Harvested, cleaned olives are initially ground into a heavy paste at room temperature, usually by large granite wheels; although some mills also use stainless steel grindstones. This paste is then spread over straw mats that are stacked with steel plates randomly interspersed, in a press which extracts the olives liquid, which is a combination of oil and water. The oil is decanted naturally or by centrifuge. It is then filtered to remove and particles before bottling.
Choosing an Olive Oil
Ninety-eight percent of the world's olive oil comes from the Mediterranean region. To say which is the best is often a matter of taste, since, like fine wines, the flavors, colors, and aromas of olive oils vary according to the type of olive, as well as the climate, soil conditions, etc. Many people consider the oils produced on the Venuto side of Lake Garda and on the hills north of Venice as Italy's finest with a sweetly fragrant, nutty taste. The oils from central Italy are more fruity and, those of Tuscany in particular, quite spicy. The oils that come from further south have the scent of Mediterranean herbs. The best way to choose an olive oil is to try as many as possible with a view to choosing the oil that pleases your taste and style of cooking. The tasting qualities to look for are freshness, lightness, and liveliness.
Cooking with Olive Oil
It is often said that extra virgin olive oil should be used in making salads but it's all right to choose a lower grade for cooking. This is not true. One chooses an olive oil for its flavor, and that flavor is no less critical to a pasta sauce or other dish, than it is to a salad. For the best taste use the olive oil that has the flavor you prefer as freely for cooking as for salads. If cost is a priority, cook with less olive oil by replacing a portion of that required in a recipe with vegetable oil. In that way you will lower the cost but still retain some of the wonderful flavor or olive oil.
Storing Olive Oil
Olive oil is perishable, sensitive to heat, light, and air. It should be kept in its original container and stored in an area that is cool and dark. It should not be refrigerated. Once opened, it should be used regularly for up to about 6 months. If an opened bottle of oil has been around for a while, smell it before using it. If it smells and tastes rancid, throw it out.
The History of Olive Oil
The olive is a small oval fruit of a tree widely cultivated in the Mediterranean regions and throughout the state of California in the United States. The fruit ripens from green to black; the fleshy pulp is the source of olive oil.
Originating in the East, the olive tree is extremely long-lived. Large quantities of olives were consumed by both the Greeks and the Egyptians, who credited the goddess Isis with the discovery of oil extraction. The Romans, too, venerated the olive tree. Throughout ancient times olives and olive oil was essential in nutrition and food preparation.
The Romans took the olive tree to all the Mediterranean countries, together with the technique of oil extraction. It continues to be grown in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Provence, where the fruity taste of olive oil dominates cooking and even the pastries.
The expansion of the olive tree in the New World was undertaken by the Spanish Conquistadors from the beginning of the 16th century. The olive tree reached the U.S., concretely in California, in the 18th century. Years later olive trees were planted by Franciscan fathers in the missions they established along the California coast. Today the olive tree variety called "mission" is related to those early plantings.
Nowadays, 93% of the world production of olives is used for oil extraction, the rest being prepared for the table. Olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon, the same as any other common cooking or salad oil. But because of its greater flavor and aroma, you'll probably use less olive oil in cooking than other oils.
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