Students learn to taste olive oil at ICE Los Angeles.

The Golden State’s Liquid Gold

ICE Los Angeles students learn how to taste locally harvested olive oil.

Italy, Spain and Greece can be top of mind when it comes to olive oil production, and California should be on that list of destinations producing the indispensable culinary ingredient. In fact, according to the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), there are more than 40,000 acres dedicated to extra virgin olive oil production in California with more than 400 growers in the state. By the end of 2020, that number is expected to jump to 60,000 acres that boast more than 75 olive varieties, resulting in blends that are unique to the Golden State.

Last week, COOC Executive Director Patricia Darragh visited ICE’s Los Angeles campus with freshly produced oil from the 2018 harvest, offering a rare opportunity for students to taste outside of an olive oil mill. During the seminar, students learned how to properly taste oil to determine if it is worth purchasing, consuming and using in the kitchen.

The first rule to follow: Always taste olive oil “neat” — despite that urge to grab a piece of bread, olive oil should be tasted on its own. Avoid any distraction that would hinder your ability to discover the oil’s true flavor. Second, always use a clean glass, ideally one that has a bowl shape. “Professional tasters use specially made blue glasses tapered to concentrate the oil’s aroma,” Darragh explained. Then, the glass should be warmed in order to bring the oil to 80-85 degrees for peak flavor. Have on hand, as we did, sliced green apples to clean your palate between oils, followed by sips of water.

ICE Los Angeles students sampled freshly harvested, California olive oil during a demonstration.
ICE Los Angeles students sampled freshly harvested, California olive oil during a demonstration.

Follow the COOC’s “Four Ss” to discover the oil’s true flavors:

  1. Swirl

    Pour a small amount of oil into a stemless wine glass. In order to release the oil’s aroma molecules, cup the base with one hand and cover the top of the glass with your other hand. Swirl in a motion similar to swirling a wine that you’re going to smell. Be sure to keep the oil covered until it’s warmed appropriately, for roughly three minutes.

  2. Sniff

    Remove your hand from the top of the glass and immediately take a quick inhale from the rim of the glass. This is to capture the “forward” aroma which is through our nostrils. Do you smell a grassy whiff, a woody smell, one of ripe tropical fruit, or a musty, rancid smell?

  3. Slurp

    Time to taste. Take a small sip while taking in some air. Don’t be shy about making a slurping noise, as that’s a sign that you’re doing it right! According to Darragh, the slurping emulsifies the oil as it distributes it in your mouth. Note the level of bitterness, which indicates fresh olives and is a positive attribute, and the “retro-nasal” aroma, which is the smell of food when it is inside your mouth. Is it buttery, floral, ripe apples or stone fruits? Anything in the green (artichokes, green tea, mint, pine) or ripe fruit (banana, apple) is good and would be a sign of undamaged olives.

  4. Swallow

    You know that zingy, peppery feeling that hits the back of your throat and makes it so you can’t talk after tasting olive oil? The measure of an oil’s pungency is dependent on that exact sensation. If you are left coughing, that’s the sign of a pungent oil, which is a positive attribute.

Things to note when purchasing olive oil:

  • Look at the label. Does it indicate the date when harvested and the location where the olives are bottled? Genuine oils are going to say precisely where they are produced.
  • Color is not an indicator of a good or bad oil but consistency is. If there’s a muddy sediment, that is the sign of a defect.
  • Never purchase a bottle of oil that does not have tinted glass nor oil that’s in a tin.
  • Always store bottles of oils away from heat in a cool, dark place.

Learn more about the California food industry in the culinary arts program at ICE's Los Angeles campus.

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