August 04 2022

The distinctive taste of good olive oil

Tasting olive oil can be compared to tasting wine. The vast majority of us are not connoisseurs: we enjoy drinking wine, but cannot identify specific aromatic notes or grape varieties. Still, we know what we do and do not like. Even without the basic knowledge, an amateur wine drinker can taste when something is off and can tell a lower quality wine (or “corner store wine,” in colloquial terms) from a balanced and more flavourful one.

Although olive oil is now a must-have in the kitchen and is widely used in the preparation of many different foods, few actually take the time to taste it beforehand. Sadly, when we take a look at the top-selling olive oils, it’s clear that most people are missing out on a superior culinary experience. All too often, we mix our oil with vinegar for a salad dressing, or use it as-is in the cooking process without taking the time to discover its specific characteristics. You might be using olive oil that is rancid, unbalanced, fusty , or even counterfeit… without even knowing it!


How to taste olive oil        

Professional tasters use special blue or red tulip-shaped glasses. This allows them to better detect the oil’s aromas, while ensuring they are not influenced by its colour, which is not considered a quality factor.

To try this exercise at home, all you need is a wine glass and a tablespoon of olive oil.

Step 1: the olfactory test. High-quality olive oil tastes fresh and boasts a “green” smell and taste. Think grass, artichokes, green tea, green apples, green bananas, and green almonds.

Notes of ripe fruit or black olives, on the other hand, indicate a late harvest, which gives off an unbalanced taste, greasier texture, and lower polyphenol content. As a result, the oil is likely to have a shorter shelf life and go rancid long before the best before date indicated on the label.

Step 2: the taste test. Take a sip of oil, then sip in some air before swallowing it. In Italian, this slurping action is called “strapaccio.” The combination of air and heat helps bring out the oil’s aromas. In varying levels, the oil will be bitter on the sides of the tongue and peppery in the throat. As long as they are harmonious, bitterness and pungency  – even in large quantities – are positive attributes and indicative of an olive oil’s quality.

The texture of a high-quality olive oil is light and fluid. A greasy residue on the lips is a sign of lower quality.

The most common organoleptic defects are rancidity and a musty taste. Rancidity is the result of fatty acid oxidation, which causes a taste similar to lead pencils or rancid walnuts. Musty oil is caused by mould growth, which gives the oil a rotting, or humid, flavour.

When tasting olive oil, we generally look for five different criteria: bitterness, pungency, aromatic persistence, aromatic notes, and harmony. The latter, in my opinion, being the most crucial of all.


What is harmony?

Imagine a group of musicians, each with their own instrument. They meet for the very first time to perform an improvised piece, yet appear to have been playing together their whole lives. That is harmony.

The more harmonious an oil is with regard to bitterness, pungency, and aromatic persistence, the better it will taste. This harmony is evidence that a producer has devoted a great deal of attention to each production phase.

That’s why it is important not to focus on the intensity of the bitterness or pungency, which can vary, but rather on the harmony of this intensity, combined with aromatic persistence.

There’s no need to be an expert to identify a good olive oil; simply make a point of tasting your oils on a regular basis. By tasting your oils more frequently, you will develop indicators to determine what you do and do not enjoy. You will also be able to distinguish high quality olive oils from lower-quality ones. This is how we develop confidence and determine whether something doesn’t taste quite right.

To recap, the four elements to retain when tasting are: 1) freshness on the nose; 2) fluid texture; 3) bitterness and pungency; 4) overall balance (each component should be part of the whole). We hope this article has provided you with a good basis on which you can begin your own journey into the world of olive oils. Visit the dedicated olive oil section here to learn even more about tasting, as well as the many benefits and uses of olive oil.