Like Fine Wines, Fine Olive Oils Boast Subtle Joys Gourmet olive oil is a lot like wine — and easily as expensive a habit. Sixteen-ounce bottles of the finest oil can run $30 or more, giving new meaning to Homer's description of it as "liquid gold."

Like Fine Wines, Fine Olive Oils Boast Subtle Joys

Homer called olive oil "liquid gold." Some gourmet olive oils cost $30 for 16 ounces. The ideal blend of olives for a fine oil is a majority of red-ripe olives and a smaller amount of a different green variety. Scroll down for recipes for croquettes, cake (yes, cake!) and more. Howard Yoon hide caption

toggle caption
Howard Yoon

Homer called olive oil "liquid gold." Some gourmet olive oils cost $30 for 16 ounces. The ideal blend of olives for a fine oil is a majority of red-ripe olives and a smaller amount of a different green variety. Scroll down for recipes for croquettes, cake (yes, cake!) and more.

Howard Yoon

"What do you smell?" she asked.

I leaned over and sniffed the bottle in her hands.

"Floral," I said. She scrunched her face. Clearly, I had more to learn.

Frances Chastang is the packaged food buyer for the gourmet store, Dean & Deluca, in Washington, D.C. She is the region's resident expert on olive oil and even teaches a class on the subject at the Smithsonian.

When I stopped by recently to ask for a few pointers on picking an extra-virgin olive oil, she graciously offered to give me a crash course and an informal tasting, similar to what one would experience with wines. My "floral" mistake was early in the lesson.

Gourmet olive oil, in fact, is a lot like wine — and easily as expensive a habit. Sixteen-ounce bottles of the finest oil can run $30 or more, giving new meaning to Homer's description of it as "liquid gold."

How to Taste Olive Oil

When sampling a gourmet olive oil, try it on its own to detect the subtleties of flavor. Smell the oil first, then taste it. How does it feel on your tongue? Thick like motor oil or slippery and light?

What do you sense immediately and then what do you taste as it hits the back of your throat, where hot and peppery flavors linger? You may notice a hint of familiar fruits or vegetables: lemons, pears, tomatoes, apples, avocado or nuts.

An oil's color does not indicate its flavor. A yellow oil may be hot and peppery while a green oil can be bland.

Remember, like wine, it doesn't matter how much you spend on an oil. What matters is whether you like it. But the better the oil, the more likely it can hold up on its own rather than be masked by other flavors or muted by heat.

Olive oil can vary widely in taste and price, depending on where it's from and who made it. Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, Italy the most famous. But every country in the Mediterranean proudly bottles its own and proclaims its own the best.

Experts agree, however, that the best-tasting olive oils use the highest-quality olives — the fruit of the olive tree — plucked at the optimal time and processed under ideal conditions.

Pick too soon and the olives will be green and hard, yielding a bitter oil. Wait too long and the olives will have turned black (green olives turn reddish-green then black as they ripen on the tree), and may have lost their essential flavors. The ideal blend is a majority of red-ripe olives and a smaller amount of a different green variety.

Higher-end oil makers rake or brush their olives from the trees and use nets to catch the falling fruit to minimize bruising. Once off the tree, olives begin to oxidize immediately, increasing unwanted acidity levels of the fruit. That's why the finest oils are pressed within 24 hours of picking.

Heat also affects the taste and chemical composition of olives, which is why some oils boast the term "cold pressing" or "first cold pressing" on their labels.

Once harvested, the basic technique of extracting oil dates back to before the ancient Greeks. Fresh olives are crushed or milled, pits and all, into a paste, which is then spread onto sheets of mesh fabric. The sheets are stacked on top of one another, then pressed with a machine to allow the oil to seep down into a holding container. New technology now allows large centrifuges to perform all these steps at once.

In ancient times, the first pressing of olive paste netted the most prized and fragrant batch of oil, usually only 40 percent of the entire yield. The remaining paste would be mixed with water and squeezed for a second pressing. Technical advances enable the "first press" to net roughly 90 percent of the entire juice of an olive.

Fine olive oils, like fine wines, come in beautiful bottles — and aficionados hold tastings, just as oenophiles do. Howard Yoon hide caption

toggle caption
Howard Yoon

Fine olive oils, like fine wines, come in beautiful bottles — and aficionados hold tastings, just as oenophiles do.

Howard Yoon

Based on guidelines set by the International Olive Oil Council, which governs 95 percent of international olive oil production, a "virgin" olive oil has not been refined in any way and has no more than 2 grams of acidity per 100 grams of oil. Extra-virgin olive oil must have no more than .8 grams of acidity, and must also display perfect aroma and flavor.

The finest extra-virgin olive oils should not be used as a medium for hot cooking, but rather as a condiment or a finisher on top of your favorite savory foods. They are expensive, but if stored properly they will last for up to a year and will certainly impress your dinner guests.

What foods go well with gourmet olive oil? My chef-friend Kenny has a wonderful rule of thumb: "Never use olive oil on anything east of the Khyber Pass."

About the Author

Howard Yoon is the editorial director of the Gail Ross Literary Agency in Washington, D.C. He has written and edited numerous nonfiction books.

Good olive oil captures the bright essence of fresh olives. It can be drizzled generously on all savory Mediterranean foods — everything from bowls of hummus to roasted lamb or grilled Branzini to your favorite pizza.

If you prefer going the minimalist route, mix the oil with roasted garlic, fresh herbs such as rosemary or sage, cracked pepper and kosher salt, and serve with pieces of crusty bread to use as a sponge.

If you really want to go hardcore, try the olive oil straight from a shot glass or spoon. You'll taste its true complexity and come up with ways to pair it best with food.

I learned this during my short course at Dean & Deluca. There I stood, plastic spoon in hand, a patient supplicant to this golden liquid in a bottle.

My 11th tasting was an oil called Capazzana, from the hilly Carmignano region of northern Italy. Olive has been produced in this area since the ninth century under the reign of Charlemagne.

As soon as the oil hit my tongue, my mouth and brain went into a frenzied game of flavor matching based on the criteria Chastang had given me.

Good oil, again like good wine, takes on different characteristics as it travels down your throat. It can be grassy or peppery. It can taste of apples or artichokes, nuts or chocolate.

This particular oil had a smooth front body, nice grassy tones, and a pleasantly sweet finish. There was an undertone of pepper, but not, as with the signature Dean & Deluca oil, the overpowering pepper that burned like a bright fire in the back of my throat. (I would later learn the peppery flavor registers most intensely on the mucous membranes near the esophagus.)

I imagined drizzling this oil over something simple but satisfying — maybe a salad of fresh field greens and herbs, or slices of grilled zucchini and eggplant. I told Chastang and she finally smiled. It made my day.

That's when I saw the bouquet of fresh flowers on the counter next to us. OK, maybe the flowers, not the oil, were the source of the floral smell. No matter. My noticing skills were vastly improved.

Read last week's Kitchen Window.

Get more recipe ideas from the Kitchen Window archive.

Olive Oil's Ancient History

Olive oil is one of civilization's oldest foods, dating to at least the 10th century B.C. The word "oil" actually is derived from the same root as "olive."

In the Book of Genesis, Noah knows the floodwaters have receded when he sees a dove carrying an olive branch — now a universal sign of peace. In Greek mythology, Zeus offered Attica to the god or goddess with the most useful invention. Athena, goddess of wisdom and peace, won the prize for her creation of the olive tree.

Olive oil was used in the Temple of Israel. The kings of Israel and Judah were anointed with olive oil, and from this ritual of anointing the Jews referred to their savior as "Messiah," Hebrew for "anointed one." Christ, too, is derived from the Greek word, Kristos, which is a direct translation of "anointed one."

Olive Oil's Healing Qualities

Olive oil has monounsaturated fats, the same "healthy" fat found in avocados and nuts. It contains no cholesterol and is rich in antioxidants such as vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), carotenoids and phenolic compounds. Olives and olive oil are mainstays of a Mediterranean diet, which doctors believe helps reduce the risk of heart disease.

Olive oil is also used as a skin moisturizer.

One tablespoon of olive oil has 120 calories, but it's worth every one of them. Don't be fooled by "light" olive oil. The term denotes color alone and has the same number of calories as regular olive oil.

How to Store Olive Oil

The two biggest enemies of olive oil are sunlight and oxidation. The oil loses its flavor and begins to go rancid. Good olive oil usually comes in a dark bottle to protect the oil from the sun's rays. If you keep it in a cool, dark place and always keep the cork or screwtop on tightly, the oil should keep for up to a year.

If you prefer keeping your oil in the fridge, you may notice a separation of particles in the bottle. Don't be alarmed. Just allow it to warm to room temperature before using.

If you make herb-infused oils, be careful not to store them for more than a week. The water content in herbs and garlic will help promote bacteria buildup in the oil, which can eventually lead to botulism.

Potato Croquettes

Howard Yoon
Potato Croquettes
Howard Yoon

Olive oil is a surprisingly good choice for deep-frying. The oil has a high smoke point and retains its flavor after several uses. Try frying this classic Mediterranean dish in standard olive oil. Save the extra-virgin for something special. Throw in some cooked ham or pancetta for a little kick.

Makes 10-14 croquettes

Olive oil, for frying

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into cubes and boiled until a knife cuts easily through

4 eggs

2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

1/2 cup milk

1 cup flour

1 cup Japanese panko breadcrumbs (found in the ethnic section of the grocery store)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium-sized cast iron skillet, heat 3 to 4 inches of oil to 375 degrees. Check the temperature using a deep-fry thermometer.

Put the potatoes through a ricer or a food mill and collect in a large bowl. Stir three of the eggs and the cheese into the potatoes and mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Combine the fourth egg and the milk.

Create an assembly line on your counter: one plate with the flour, one shallow bowl with the egg-and-milk mixture, and one final plate with the breadcrumbs.

Shape the potato mixture into small egg shapes with your hands. You may want to flour your hands to prevent sticking. Roll the croquette lightly in flour, then roll in the egg mixture, and finally, the breadcrumbs. Continue until potato mixture runs out.

Carefully place croquettes, a few at a time, in the hot oil and fry to a deep, golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve immediately.

Infused Roasted Garlic Oil

Howard Yoon
Roasted Garlic Olive Oil
Howard Yoon

The better the olive oil, the more it should stand alone as a flavor. This dish is always a favorite at cocktail parties. Experiment with different herbs -- rosemary, thyme, sage -- and salts to match your taste. I've found that sticking with one herb per batch works best. Use a bold, peppery oil for this appetizer.

Makes 6 appetizer servings

5 cloves of roasted garlic (see recipe below)

1/4 cup fine extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

Chopped fresh herbs (optional)

1 fresh baguette or kalamata olive loaf, warmed and cut into square chunks

Mash garlic (and chopped herbs, if you're using) in oil. Salt and pepper generously to taste. Serve in a small dipping bowl with pieces of crusty bread for dipping.

Roasted Garlic

Cut one head of garlic crossways. Sprinkle exposed garlic flesh with kosher salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Combine the two sides to form the head again and wrap loosely in aluminum foil. Roast at 375 degrees for 45 minutes, or until roasted garlic oozes out of its skin with a slight squeeze of the fingers. The roasted garlic cloves should be soft to the touch but not mushy.

Olive Oil Cake

Howard Yoon
Olive Oil Cake
Howard Yoon

Olive oil in cake? You'll be surprised how the olive oil keeps the cake super moist. Make sure you use a floral olive oil rather than, say, a peppery one. This recipe is from Holiday Baking: New And Traditional Recipes for Wintertime Holidays, by Sarah Perry (Chronicle Books 2005).

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, at room temperature

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup milk

1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest (from about 3 medium oranges)

1 tablespoon of orange liqueur (Grand Marnier or Cointreau)

1/4 to 1/3 cup sliced toasted almonds

2 tablespoons marmalade, warmed in the microwave

1 tablespoon powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with cooking spray. Line the bottom with a round of parchment or waxed paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In another medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and sugar until well blended, about 1 minute. Whisk in the olive oil, milk, orange zest and orange liqueur.

Whisk the egg mixture into the flour mixture until thoroughly blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the cake is firm and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, scatter the almonds in a single layer on a small baking sheet or pan and toast in the oven until slightly brown, 8 to 10 minutes.

To serve, unmold the cake, remove the parchment paper, and place the cake on a flat serving plate. Using a pastry brush, coat the sides of the cake and a 1-inch rim along the top with the warm marmalade, arranging any bits of peel along the rim. (If the marmalade is too thick, add 1/4 teaspoon warm water and stir.) Press the almonds onto the sticky top rim. Using a fine sieve, lightly dust the powdered sugar evenly over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.