How to Taste Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: A Primer
The best way to learn about olive oil is—gasp!—to taste, and then taste some more. All the reading and studying can’t compete with the experience of getting up and close and personal with extra-virgin olive oil’s aromas and flavors. Here’s how to get started:
1. Don’t Be Intimidated
Newbies sometimes flinch at the thought of drinking olive oil straight, which is understandable since we usually encounter olive oil as an ingredient rather than the star of the show. Don’t worry; it won’t hurt you! In fact, it’s delicious. Like tasting wine, tasting extra-virgin olive oil can be incredibly nuanced. Professionals devote their careers to investigating and understanding its complexities. But like wine and cheese, you need not be an expert to learn and enjoy.
2. Warm the Oil
Poor a small amount—but not too small, about a teaspoon will do the trick—of olive oil into a little cup. Professionals use opaque blue glasses that look like votive candleholders, but a shot glass or a small cup will work perfectly. (Tasting from a darkened glass prevents preconceptions based on color.) Hold the glass in the palm of one hand, and with the other hand cover the top. This will trap the olive oil’s aromas inside while you warm it up by gently swirling the cup between your hands for a minute or so.
Don’t be shy. Stick your nose deep into the glass and take in a whiff. What you smell is the aroma or “nose” of the olive oil. Perhaps you’ll discover the smell of green apples, peaches or melon, or artichokes or fresh-cut grass. Or maybe you’ll get a whiff of green tea, or fresh herbs. The possibilities are nearly endless.
Sip like you mean it. If you don’t slurp an adequate amount of oil, you won’t get the full experience of the oil coating your entire mouth and tongue, where all your taste buds live. Don’t be shy, go ahead and make some noise! The sound effects happen naturally when you use a method called strippagio, which means sucking air through the oil to aerate it and create a spray effect. In doing so, the olive oil will cover your whole mouth. Now close your mouth and exhale through your nose. This second perception is called retronasal, and because our nose and mouth are connected, you’ll get a whole bunch of new sensory experiences this way.
If you skip this step, you’ll miss that tingly feeling in the back of your throat. That peppery sensation is called pungency—and it can be as subtle as a tickle or as powerful as a burn (a good burn!). This comes from oleocanthol, the antioxidant responsible for many of extra-virgin olive oil’s incredible health benefits. Some even categorize oils as one cough, two coughs, or, ahem, three coughs. At this point, you’ll have hopefully experienced all three positive attributes of olive oil: fruitiness, pungency and bitterness.
These multi-faceted flavors and attributes are determined by the type and ripeness of olives, their growing conditions, the milling process, the oil’s storage, and more. Every step in the process affects the way the oil smells and tastes. It takes impeccable attention to detail to produce wonderful oil, and that’s what makes Gaea olive oil so extraordinary.
If you’re dining out at a restaurant that uses extra-virgin olive oil, ask for a teaspoon before you start dipping your bread. Oil brought to the table or already available is often rancid or defective. Smell it, paying attention to fruitiness. If the oil smells unpleasant or off, stop there. If it smells promising and you’re feeling brave, take a sip. What attributes and defects can you identify? If you’re happy with what you taste, enjoy!