How to Taste Olive Oil

We recently attended an olive oil workshop and learned some things about olive oil labeling, which we wrote about in last week's post, Understanding Olive Oil Labels. This week, we thought we'd share what we learned about olive oil tasting.

The highlight of the workshop was a sensory evaluation of olive oil in which we inhaled, sipped, swished, savored, and analyzed different oils. These sorts of rituals are familiar to tasters of wine and even cheese; however, they're fairly new in the world of olive oil and might seem a bit pretentious or over-the-top for home cooks. We discovered that there's much to be gained from focused tasting, though. It's a fun way to learn about the taste differences between regional varieties and extra virgin and non, and, most importantly, to hone in on your personal favorites and preferences for different dishes.

Tasting Basics:

• In professional tastings, olive oil is placed in dark blue glasses so the tasters are not influenced by color. However, if you're doing this at home you can use any small glasses or bowls. Use about a tablespoon of each oil.

• Make sure the olive oil is warm. Hold it between your hands – one hand on the bottom and one over the mouth of the cup – and swirl it around a bit.

• Inhale deeply. How intense is the aroma? What do you smell?

• Then, take a sip but don't swallow. Notice how it tastes at first and then let it fill your mouth, hitting all your different tastebuds. Suck some air into your mouth a few times to let the oil aerate. This is where you might start to feel really ridiculous, but go ahead and make some noise and funny faces – this process makes a big difference in being able to appreciate all the different aspects of the oil.

• Swallow, and make note of the oil's attributes and the degree of each. Below are some commonly used terms.

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Positive attributes:
- Bitterness
- Pungency
- Fruit intensity
- Total flavor intensity
- Sweetness
- Astringency
- Texture (thin, medium, thick, greasy, waxy)

Defects:
- Rancid
- Fusty
- Musty
- Winey
- Muddy Sediment

Flavor descriptors:
- Ripe fruit (olive, nutty, floral, buttery, tropical, banana, other fruit)
- Green fruit (green olive, grass, artichoke, herbaceous, green apple, green banana, green tea, mint, eucalyptus, tomato leaf, spice, wood/hay/straw)

• Rinse your mouth with water before you try the next oil. Eating a slice of apple can also help cleanse the palette.

If it's your first time experiencing olive oil like this, the intensity of it might be overwhelming. Extra virgin olive oil can be very pungent and peppery, and coughing are watery eyes are not uncommon. We happen to be very sensitive to bitter flavors (which is actually considered a positive attribute for olive oil) and had always had a hard time appreciating certain "fine" olive oils on their own. However, the process of slowing down, swishing, aerating, and evaluating the oils from beginning to middle to end of a sip infused us with a whole new appreciation for them. Now we even find ourselves gravitating towards the more bitter and peppery oils!

By tasting different olive oils, you can start to learn what you like – Tuscan style or Spanish style, buttery or grassy, one brand over another, etc. and which to use in different dishes. Consider that an olive oil that's too strong on its own might be perfect when added to salad. When you are tasting, make note if you think a certain oil would go particularly well with tomatoes, for example.

Olive oil can be pretty expensive so this is a perfect activity to do with friends. If each person brings one bottle, the costs are kept down but everyone can try several varieties. Number the oils and do a blind-tasting to eliminate any bias (unfortunately, this means one person will have to know which oil is which). Give everyone a sheet of paper and pencil to write with, and if you want to get extra fancy and serious, print out tasting sheets and sensory wheels:

Olive Oil Tasting Sheets from The Olive Oil Source

(Olive oil image: Flickr member roboppy licensed under Creative Commons, Sensory wheel image: J. Moget via The Olive Oil Source)