Exceptional extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is a flawless, fresh juice, packed with phenols — those antioxidants that fight disease and promote good health. EVOO is fruity, flavorful, bitter and spicy, and should be consumed as soon as possible.
EVOO fact: Extra virgin olive oil is NOT first cold pressed (this term is outdated and doesn't apply to current milling methods); it’s separated via a centrifuge at about room temperature. One run, no first or second of anything.
THREE KEY EVOO CHARACTERISTICS
Apart from being perfect, fresh fruit juice, EVOO should possess three key characteristics: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency.
When we say fruitiness, we are referring to both the smell and taste: it should smell and taste of anything fresh you might come across in a garden. We're not just talking about fruit here but also flowers, vegetables, herbs, grass and so on.
Bitterness refers to just that: a bitter flavor in your mouth, which can be sensed on the sides of your tongue. And this is a good thing, as bitterness in EVOO is an essential indicator of freshness because olives are an inherently bitter fruit.
Finally, there's pungency, which refers to that peppery, almost spicy sensation the oil causes in the back of your throat. This is a reaction to those aforementioned phenolic compounds. So it goes, the stronger the spicy, peppery reaction, the more the phenols, the healthier the oil. Since these compounds are antioxidants, higher quantities also mean the oil will oxidize less rapidly and therefore be shelf stable for longer.
When it comes to what can go wrong with olive oil, there are many defects, two of which we'll cover here. Even the slightest hint of a defect means that the olive cannot be considered extra virgin (which is flawless, remember?). If an olive oil has just a hint of a defect, it can be considered virgin olive oil. Anything more than a hint, and off to the refinery it goes, where it can become just olive oil sans the extra virgin (and where it gets stripped of all of its defects, but also the health benefits too).
The most common defect you are likely to come across is rancidity, which is what happens when an oil (among other products) has oxidized by age, light, heat and/or air. This is why it's always important to look at an EVOO's harvest date, and then store it, sealed, in a dark, cool place, and consume it quickly, especially after opening (that is, within a few months). On our Compare page, we dive into to how to detect rancidity.
Though less likely, you may also come across olive oils with a defect called "fusty," which means that the olives started to ferment before they were milled (likely because the olives didn't get to the mill quickly enough). This defect smells of dirty socks, barnyard, or, eh hem, baby vomit (gross but true).
HOW TO TASTE EVOO
In a professional tasting (like those used to determine quality certification), we assess an olive oil based on all three of these characteristics, and all in a fancy blue glass. Why? To warm the oil in our hands (which releases its aromas), to trap said aromas, and to conceal the color of the oil.
EVOO fact: Olive oil color is actually irrelevant when evaluating an oil, as it is not an indicator of quality or lack thereof.
Assuming you don't have a blue tasting glass (serious points if you do!), a shot glass or just any small cup will do.
To properly evaluate the oil, first assess the intensity of its aroma. Start by doing your best to warm the cup in your hand. Can you smell it from far away, or do you have to get your nose all the way into the cup? And what do you smell?
Then sample the oil, moving it around your mouth so that you can evaluate its fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. Does that fruitiness you smelled come through? Does the bitterness linger on your tongue long after? Does the pepperiness make you cough?
Doing these steps side by side with another oil, as we suggest in the Compare section, will better allow you to notice all of these characteristics, and how they differ from oil to oil.