Olive oil is quite possibly the most important thing I own. It makes all my food happen, which keeps me alive. Of course, there are other valid, beautiful, and tasty forms of fat in which you can cook your food, but my Italian father taught me early on that olive oil was the way to go. Call it habit, call it blind adherence, call it stubbornness—olive oil is and will always be my cooking fat of choice.
But with so many options, it can be confusing to know which one to buy. Olive oils differ in quality and in price range, and what’s a “finishing oil” anyway? How necessary is the “extra-virgin” in all of those ingredients lists? Do I really need three different types? The world is a confusing enough place. Should deciding among the thousands of varietals add to that?
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Nekisia Davis’ Olive Oil and Maple Granola
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To ease things along, I’ve reached out to self-proclaimed oleologist (aka olive oil expert) Nick Coleman with a few questions. Very much a superfan, the former Eataly employee espouses the benefits of the stuff.
Here’s what he had to say.
Valerio Farris: What’s one thing every home cook should know about olive oil?
Nick Coleman: Fresh, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil is the backbone of the Mediterranean diet. Few foods are as versatile, as healthy, or as useful to the home cook. Olive oil pairs well with vegetables, beans, bread, pizza, pasta, cheese, soup, salad, seafood, meat, poultry and even dessert. Each year I head to Italy and lead a tour through Tuscany during the olive harvest so Americans can experience the real thing and see how olive oil and wine complement each other in the landscape and at the table.
VF: When it comes to varietals and different olive oil grades, what should the average customer and home cook be paying attention to?
NC: When choosing oil, the three most important pieces of information to look for on the label are the harvest date, olive cultivars, and the region from which it originates. Unlike many wine varieties, olive oil does not improve with age, so freshness is a key component to quality. Check the date. In addition, different olives will have varying organoleptic properties (taste, color, aroma, feel, etc.), and knowing the cultivars of which the oil is composed is crucial. There is a saying: “What grows together goes together.” Be sure the olives from which the oil in the bottle is produced come not only from one country, but from a specific, localized region within that country.
VF: On average, how many bottles of olive oil should a person have? How many do you have?
NC: No single oil can solve all of your culinary conundrums. Have a variety of oils on hand. At minimum, a delicate finishing oil that won’t overpower basic flavors, one robust finishing oil to cut through stronger food, and one more affordable (but clean-tasting) extra-virgin olive oil for cooking.
VF: What’s your favorite grocery store available olive oil to buy? One that every home cook should have?
NC: The California Olive Ranch is widely available in supermarkets across the U.S. and is a decent, everyday oil for cooking, marinating, and using in vinaigrettes. However, if you want something really unique, check out Grove and Vine, a company dedicated to celebrating and championing the finest olive oil producers from around the world.
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VF: Okay, once and for all—how do I pan-sear in olive oil without sending up a cloud of smoke?
NC: The first thing that burns are the micro- and macroscopic particles of olive sediment. In this sense, it’s best to sear with a filtered extra-virgin olive oil high in polyphenols. Also, less is more: The oil should simply prevent ingredients from sticking to the pan.
VF: What olive oil would you recommend for roasting in the oven?
NC: You’re going to cook the nuances out of the oil when roasting. It’s best to use an affordable, filtered extra-virgin olive oil for this application. Save the high-quality vibrant oils to anoint the dish at the end.
So there you have it! If Nick’s expertise is something you’d like to know more about, then don’t hesitate to check him out. Come October, he’ll be leading a trip to Italy (yes, that Italy) for a week of culinary exploration in the Tuscan countryside.
What’s your favorite olive oil to cook with? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.