UP IN SMOKE
The ancient Greek poet Homer called it “liquid gold.” I call it indispensable for any serious griller. I reach for it daily, and like salt and pepper, I can’t imagine cooking without it. Not only does olive oil have well-documented health benefits, it, er, smokes other vegetable-based oils when it comes to flavor.
How do I use it? Let me count the ways:
- Brushed on poultry, fish fillets, and vegetables to retain moisture, hold rubs and seasonings in place, and to keep food from sticking to the grill grate;
- Whisked into lemon juice with salt, pepper, and chopped fresh basil, sage, rosemary, and other herbs for a quick marinade for fish, poultry, lamb, beef, pork, or vegetables;
- As a finishing sauce drizzled over steaks (such as bistecca alla Fiorentina on page 145 of Planet Barbecue) seafood, grilled bread, and vegetables;
In vinaigrettes, using 1 part of acid (lemon juice or vinegar) to 3 or 4 parts of olive oil, adding mustard or seasonings of your choice;
- For seasoning and oiling your grill grate (especially if you have cast iron grates). Use the same technique on cast iron cookware, such as a griddle, skillet, or plancha.
Olive oil is available in staggering variety at gourmet and grocery stores. Alas, not all olive oils are created equal. Italian versus Spanish. Extra-virgin versus virgin. And to add to the confusion, price is not always a consistent predictor of quality.
Olive oil enlightenment arrived to barbecuebible.com in 2005, when Nancy Loseke joined us as general factotum and Features Editor of Up in Smoke. Happily, Nancy wears another hat—that of professional olive oil taster (trained at the Robert Mondavi Olive Oil Center at U.C. Davis, no less). Nancy is a co-founder of the “The Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club”—based on the premise that olive oil, unlike wine, is the freshest and best the minute it leaves the press. Nancy and/or her associates crisscross the globe, ferreting out the best olive oil on six continents. Four times a year, they send out their top picks, and as a longtime member of the club, I want to tell you that these are simply the best olive oils you’ll ever taste. (Read more about the club below, including its exclusive offer to send readers of Up in Smoke a free bottle of olive oil with a trial subscription.)
I’ve asked Nancy to share her top tips for selecting and maintaining the best olive oils:
- Always buy olive oil labeled “extra-virgin”. This is a special title reserved for oils that have satisfied all the International Olive Council (IOC) standards for excellence, including an acidity level of 0.8 per cent or less.
- Look for harvest dates or “use by” dates on either the front or back labels affixed to the bottle. (Sometimes, they are printed vertically.) Olive oil, unlike wine, does not get better with age. It should be consumed as close to the harvest date as possible. Oils from the Mediterranean are pressed from October through January, while oils from the Southern Hemisphere (Chile, Australia, South Africa, etc.) are freshest during our summer months.
- Shop for oil at purveyors who have a brisk turnover in merchandise.
- Avoid purchasing oils that are displayed in direct sunlight or under fluorescent lights (common in supermarkets), as light quickly degrades olive oil.
- Color, surprisingly, is not a predictor of flavor; superior oils can range in color from vivid green to golden yellow.
- If possible, shop where sampling is encouraged. Some stores now have olive oil bars.
- Buy oils in dark green or brown bottles; clear bottles hasten light-induced degradation.
- Never buy olive oils labeled “light.” They are generally inferior oils that fell short of IOC standards and have had their flavor and color chemically stripped. And they still have 100 calories per tablespoon.
- California is now producing some excellent-tasting, high-quality olive oils. Purchase them in late Fall after the harvest.
- Look for oils that are estate-pressed, meaning the time between harvest and pressing is likely a matter of hours—not days.
- Store oils in a cool, dark place—never next to the stovetop. Unless you are a profligate user, buy olive oil in small bottles or tins.
Visit the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club for more information.