Original Taste

There is a wide range of flavors found in extra virgin olive oils. Flavors are determined by several factors including type of olives (variety of trees), ripeness of olives, growing conditions, and oil storage. Follow the information below to learn how to taste olive oil and how to recognize the difference between good and defective flavors.

The reality is that many people do not know what a good olive oil is supposed to taste like. And since I have many recipes that include olive oil, I thought I would give some tips on what to look for in a good olive oil. We always hear that good food comes from fresh ingredients. Olive oil in the Mediterranean diet is an ingredient that is in almost every recipe-especially in Greek cuisine-let’s not forget Greeks are the highest consumers of olive oil in the world, and for a reason; olive oil is added everywhere. That is why it is especially important to have good olive oil if you are trying to incorporate elements of this diet to your current eating pattern. But apart from flavor, good olive oil is important for its health benefits: old olive oil lacks those valuable antioxidants that are responsible for most of its health benefits.

You may think that you would know just by tasting if an olive oil is bad, but that is not the case, particularly when olive oil has not been part of your diet initially. A study from the University of California, Davis had found that 44% of consumers in the U.S. liked defects like rancidity, fustiness, mustiness and winey flavor in their olive oil. The authors indicate this may be due to the large amount of defective olive oil labeled as extra virgin available to consumers. In other words because there is such a large amount of defective oil in the market and people are used consuming it, they think that this is what olive oil is supposed to taste like.

I remember bringing some fresh (early harvest) olive oil from our groves to a friend, and when he tasted it and it had that slight peppery sensation (presence of polyphenols) he coughed a bit and politely said thank you. When we visited about a year later, I noticed that the bottle was almost full and still in his cupboard. I am assuming he did not like it because he was used to older olive oils that did not have that peppery sensation, a bit milder but not fresher and with less (if any) polyphenols (antioxidants).He probably thought that it was a bad olive oil, when in fact that characteristic is desirable.

So the lesson here is that by not knowing what good olive oil tastes like, you may be missing out on not only taste but also the health benefits. (We educated him on the oil and now he loves real EVOO).

While we were not raised on good olive oil, We have learned there are so many details to tasting olive oil correctly. We have taken took some olive oil tasting classes here in Northern California, where we were able to pinpoint some of the standard characteristics of a good or bad olive oil. (via the COOC and UC Davis)

In order to be able to make some sort of judgment of whether an olive oil is good you would need to know what a bad one tastes like. So you can start by comparing different olive oils. Some ideas: extra virgin with processed olive oil, olive oils from different locations or different varieties of olives, old olive oil with fresh, etc.

Ideally you want the olive oil to be in a small cup, even one where you cannot see the color. I use small glass like a shot glass. Add a small amount of olive oil (no more than 1 tablespoon) in the cup. Cover with your palm and swirl. Take a sip while sucking in some air too. Let the oil sit in the mouth spreading throughout, tasting and then swallow.

We are not talking about professional olive oil tasting, but I think it is important for a consumer to know what flavors or characteristics good olive oil should and should not have. Here are the tastes, flavors and characteristics you should be looking for according to The Olive Source and the Journal of the American Oil Chemist Society.

Flavor Components of Olive Oil–A Review, A.K. Kiritsakis*, Department of Food Technology, School of Food Technology and Nutrition, Technological Educational Institution (TEI) of Thessaloniki, Sindos Thessaloniki, Greece.

Following is the abstract of a Journal of the American Oil Chemist Society which describes many of the volatile substances. Contact American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) for full article (or the author).

The unique and delicate flavor of olive oil is attributed to a number of volatile components. Aldehydes, alcohols, esters, hydrocarbons, ketones, furans, and other compounds have been quantitated and identified by gas chromatography­mass spectrometry in good-quality olive oil. The presence of flavor compounds in olive oil is closely related to its sensory quality. Hexanal, trans-2-hexenal, 1-hexanol, and 3-methylbutan-1-ol are the major volatile compounds of olive oil. Volatile flavor compounds are formed in the olive fruit through an enzymatic process. Olive cultivar, origin, maturity stage of fruit, storage conditions of fruit, and olive fruit processing influence the flavor components of olive oil and therefore its taste and aroma. The components octanal, nonanal, and 2-hexenal, as well as the volatile alcohols propanol, amyl alcohols, 2-hexenol, 2-hexanol, and heptanol, characterize the olive cultivar. There are some slight changes in the flavor components in olive oil obtained from the same oil cultivar grown in different areas. The highest concentration of volatile components appears at the optimal maturity stage of fruit. During storage of olive fruit, volatile flavor components, such as aldehydes and esters, decrease. Phenolic compounds also have a significant effect on olive oil flavor. There is a good correlation between aroma and flavor of olive oil and its polyphenol content. Hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, caffeic acid, coumaric acid, and p-hydroxybenzoic acid influence mostly the sensory characteristics of olive oil. Hydroxytyrosol is present in good-quality olive oil, while tyrosol and some phenolic acids are found in olive oil of poor quality. Various off-flavor compounds are formed by oxidation, which may be initiated in the olive fruit. Pentanal, hexanal, octanal, and nonanal are the major compounds formed in oxidized olive oil, but 2-pentenal and 2-heptenal are mainly responsible for the off-flavor.

JAOCS 75, 673­681 (1998)..