As any chef worth their Maldon sea salt will tell you, the key to a great dish is using great ingredients. No matter how good your pan-searing technique or fancy your new sous-vide machine, it don't mean shit if the raw materials are … well, shit.
Of course, sourcing the best quality ingredients is easier said than done. Not all of us live around the corner from a bounteously stocked farmers market or have a friendly butcher who can parcel up a few locally raised lamb chops on request.
But there are some kitchen staples that you can get right without having to embark on exploratory food shops. Ones that will raise your dinner party feedback from non-committal yeah-really-goods to resounding all-table exclamations of "OMG how did you make this?"
Like olive oil, for example. The backbone of Mediterranean cooking and drizzled into everything from cookies to cannabis, it's a pretty essential ingredient. And yet most of us don't have a clue what to look for when faced with conflicting bottles of "Freshly pressed!," "100-percent olives!," and "Direct from Sicily!" in the supermarket condiments aisle. Add to that the problem of fraudulent producers passing off inferior olive oil as extra virgin, and it's little wonder that most of us just grab a Bertolli and hope for the best.
To clear up some of this confusion, MUNCHIES reached out to Rob McGavin of Cobram Estate, extra virgin olive oil producers with farms in Australia and California. Your olive oil game is about to get elevated.
What to look for on the label
To save yourself from a Mr Burns-esque inspection of every olive oil bottle in the shop, McGavin suggests honing in on two things: the year of harvest and "best before" date. "This is because all oils go rancid—in other words, go off—over time," he says. "The fresher the olive oil, the better it tastes and the higher the health benefits."
Oils become rancid when they make contact with the air. The best olive oils are produced using fruit pressed soon after picking and stored in airtight tanks, often under nitrogen, which helps stop oxygen from getting in.
Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Portugal … Where should my oil be from?
Despite over 30 countries across the world being listed by the International Olive Council as producers of olive oil, McGavin doesn't fret too much about country of origin. "Only about 25 percent of the global production is truly extra virgin olive oil," he says. "Therefore my advice would be to do some homework and ensure you know and trust the brand of olive oil you are buying. Price is often an indication but not always."
Speaking of which, what exactly does "extra virgin" mean?
"In simple terms, it means the highest quality grade," says McGavin. "It is simply the juice of fresh olives which has not had any heat, chemicals, or solvents used to extract the oil."
As the Olive Oil Times (yes, a thing) notes, extra virgin olive oil is made by crushing fruit and extracting the juice. Nothing else.
"This makes extra virgin very unique in that it's the only mainstream edible oil that is purely the 'juice' of the olive fruit," adds McGavin. "So, it has all of the good and none of the bad!"
Sounds good to us. Of course, there are more steps involved in making extra virgin olive oil than simply squishing a few olives and bottling the oil. McGavin explains the process on his farms: "We take ripe, fresh, healthy olives, get them to the mill within four hours, and crush the whole olive into a paste. We then mix the paste for about 30 minutes in a 'malaxer,' which allows the olive antioxidants to infuse into the oil, and the oil cells to rupture and release the oil. Then we spin the paste to separate the oil."
Glass or plastic bottle?
Does the receptacle your olive oil comes in matter? McGavin says, not so much: "The container is not important but what is very important is that it is dark in colour to keep the light out and that it is oxygen-proof. Usually dark glass is the best but dark plastic with oxygen barriers and tins can also be good."
Colour isn't necessarily a determinant of a good olive oil (although you should be worried if it's not green or yellow), so McGavin instead uses mouthfeel and smell to judge. He says: "Every extra virgin olive oil should smell fresh or remind you of anything that smells fresh—fresh cut grass, herbs, or fresh tomatoes. If it smells like stale peanuts, mouldy cheese, or musty like the bottom of the wine cellar, or if you can't smell anything, then it's rancid and not extra virgin."
Don't be fooled
Olive oil can be one of the most fraudulent foodstuffs out there. In a report last year, Forbes found that nearly 80 percent of Italian olive oil was fake. These oils were either an adulterated product posing as extra virgin, mixed with other oils, not produced in Italy, and even vegetable oil disguised with colouring.
You can avoid bad olive oils by looking out for bottles that promise "extra light," "pure," and "100 percent," says McGavin. These are inferior refined oils with labels that give the impression of being extra virgin.
You've chosen your olive oil. How long will it keep for?
"This can be anywhere between one day and three years," says McGavin. "It depends entirely on how fresh the olives are at the time of crushing and how the resulting oil is treated after harvest."
However, things changed once you've cracked the bottle. He warns: "Once the oil is opened, it needs to be consumed in four to six weeks. This is because the seal is broken allowing oxygen to enter the bottle. The oil will go rancid very quickly."
The Million Dollar Question: How do I choose an oil that will taste as good as the one I had on holiday in Tuscany that time?
Look, nothing is going to taste as delicious as the freshly baked pane carasau you had doused in iridescent pools of just-bottled olive oil on a sun-bleached balcony with your ex-boyfriend in summer '07. Get over it and look for a good alternative.
McGavin says: "You need to find a trustworthy producer who is dedicated to producing and supplying fresh high quality olive oil and putting the consumer first."
Now we've got that cleared up, time to eat. "My favourite way to enjoy olive oil is poured on fresh pasta, risotto, or sautéing with vegetables," says McGavin. Bon Appétit!