How to taste olive oil

So you think you've got a good one, yeah? The bottle looks lovely, the price makes it feel premium, and there's some nice wording about the quality—but is it actually good? For that matter, is it even really "extra virgin"?

We did a whole post on what to look out for when buying an oil (harvest date, specific details, etc.), but let's get down to the fun stuff: taste.

tasting extra virgin olive oil at the olive mill

Pop open a new bottle, and let's explore.

 

Firstly, wash you hands. Especially if you're handling other ingredients in the kitchen, let's go ahead and make sure they're clean and without any particular smell (sorry, no fragrant soaps or hand sanitisers here).

Next, pour a small amount of olive oil in a wine glass or something similar. Enough for a couple of sips.

If we're going by the official rules, we use small, stemless coloured glasses (like the photo above). This is because colour is not an indicator of colour, so says the International Olive Oil Council and most olive oil competitions. However, at home, a small wine glass or something in a similar shape works best.

Now, place one hand over the top of the glass and the other at the bottom to cup it. You're doing two things here: 1) holding in the aromas, and 2) warming up the oil itself.

Start to swirl the oil around the glass, so it's touching all sides and raising the temperature from your hand on the glass. We want it to be close to body temperature, so if the oil has just arrived in winter (your new subscription!) or if it's been in a cold pantry—do this for a few more seconds. And still keep that one hand tightly over the top.

Here comes the magic.

 

Remove your 'lid' hand here and put your nose right in the glass to take a big whiff. I do something which is a bit full on and cup my nose in the glass just to make sure I get the best hit of the smells.

You can spin the glass and swirl some more, move your nose side to side over it, or even open your mouth a bit as a trick I learned in wine tasting. 

Now think about what you smell. Some common aromas fresh grass, artichokes, tomatoes as well as wild herbs like rosemary, citrus like lemon, and nuts like almonds.

Now to taste!

 

Cover again with your hand and give it a swirl. Let's take a small sip, about the size of a teaspoon.

Hold this right at the front of your mouth for a second to it to settle in, then you're going to do something silly...

You're going to "aerate it" as you would with wine or tea in a proper tasting. In practice, this means sucking back the oil along the side of your mouth.

You'll open your mouth here to the start of a smile and suck in air along the side, pushing the oil in and back. 

Then, swallow. 

You might cough here, and that's just a totally normal reaction to some oils' properties.

Pause and get a feel for what's happening. This is the moment when you'll experience a "retronasal sensation". This is when the fragrance and flavour from the oil make their way to the back of your throat—the place where smell and taste come together!

So what should be coming together in this holy moment as you assess an extra virgin olive oil? 

 

You should sense fruitiness. This can be in the form of a fruit or vegetable. Really, any of those flavours we listed before and more. I always say it should taste "alive", so not an old book, or metallic or anything like that.

You should also taste bitterness or pungency. This can range from a sharpness to something slight on the palate. 

Finally, back to that cough or the sensation of a cough. The final check is for any sort of pepper. This might be a little tingle in the back of the throat or a full-on fit of cough. The reaction comes down to variety, harvest, production, and factors like that.

The main thing is that all three of these elements exist in some tone or another, and that they are all in balance.

An oil that doesn't bring you any fruity gifts but just hits with a peppery aftertaste isn't great. Likewise, all fruit but no real sensation after the smell isn't right either.

The balance of these qualities—in a delicate way to compliment loads of foods or in a bolder way to direct the dish—is what makes the oil good.

Once you've found an oil you like, then you can start trying it up against others. When you have an assortment of oils like you would vinegars or other condiments, you can start playing with which ones compliment which dishes and when to cook with what.

But it all starts with this: knowing what to look for in and oil and making sure you've got a keeper.

 

 

—Sarah Vachon, founder & olive oil sommelier in training 😎

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