Olive-oil quality tied to production

BURNING QUESTION

November 15, 2006|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,NEWSDAY

There are so many olive oils out there. What kind should I buy?

In the United States, you generally will see three types of olive oil at the market: extra-virgin, virgin and pure, which is also sometimes labeled, simply, "olive oil." To understand the differences among them, you need to understand a little about olive-oil production.

To make olive oil, you take ripe olives and crush them, pits and all. From the mash comes olive oil, and the method by which the oil is extracted will largely determine the quality of that oil.

The very best oil is extracted simply by pressing the mash and letting the oil dribble out. Because no heat is used (heat can damage the oil), this is called cold-pressed olive oil.

Centrifugal force, heat and even chemical solvents also can be used to extract the oil, and these methods can be used on the olive mash after that first cold-pressed oil has been extracted. The oil produced by heat and/or chemical extraction is called refined olive oil and is of a much lower quality.

Extra-virgin olive oil must contain not more than 0.8 percent acidity; virgin olive oil not more than 2 percent. Pure olive oil is a mixture of virgin olive oil and refined (i.e., heat- or chemical- extracted) olive oil whose total acidity does not exceed 1 percent.

I generally buy extra-virgin olive oil.

Italian olive oil has become very chic recently, but it's an open secret that Italy doesn't grow enough olives to produce the amount of oil it bottles. Lots of those olives come from Spain, the world's largest olive-oil producer. Spain makes some terrific olive oils, as does Greece, and you will generally pay less for them than for Italian or French oils of comparable quality.

Erica Marcus writes for Newsday.

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