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A simple guide to choosing and serving the right olive oil

Though I’m not a professional sommelier, one of my favourite things to do (other than drinking wine) is obsessively daydream about which wines to pair with my next meal. 

Depending on the type of meal that you’re having and the company you’re with, another liquid complement with similar levels of complexity and health benefits to consider pairing with food is olive oil.

Choose extra virgin olive oil for its complexity and health benefits.

Along with its plethora of health benefits, a good extra virgin olive oil is an essential ingredient in certain dishes and can be a wonderful complement to a multi-course meal (including dessert). Loaded with antioxidants (including vitamin E and K) and rich in monosaturated fats, it can help lower cholesterol levels, reduce heart problems and can be a healthy and tasty alternative to butter for vegans and those with dairy restrictions like myself. 

Yet like anything else, it should be consumed in moderation given it still has the same number of calories as canola oil and butter (around 120 calories a teaspoon).

During a delectable multi-course lunch workshop, featuring a sampling of acclaimed Australian Chef Shane Osborne’s signature dishes at Michelin-starred Arcane, we took away five key factors when it comes to selecting, storing and pairing olive oil with different food and wines:

Good olive oil is essential to the signature dishes at Michelin-starred Arcane.

5 tips for choosing the best olive oil

Classification

A Mediterranean staple along with wine, olive oil is often produced in wine regions with Mediterranean-like climates featuring moderate to warm temperatures. And like wines, olive oil production is tightly governed by a similar classification system.

To make sure you’re getting a good quality bottle of premium olive oil, be sure to check the label to see if it has been rated a PGI or PDO (highest level) olive oil under the EU system. This applies to olive oils made in the EU including Italy, Greece, France, Spain and Portugal.

Ageing

Unlike fine wines, olive oils aren’t meant to age. Be sure to look for the expiration date on the bottle, as you ideally want it when it’s fresh, and it’s better to buy locally if you can. As with wines, you’ll want to protect it against heat and humidity.

Unopened they can be stored for a year, but after opening a bottle, it should be consumed in the next 60–90 days to get the best flavours; longer than that and it will be subject to oxidation.

Price range

According to Arcane general manager and resident olive oil expert Stefano Bartolomei, a rule of thumb is to expect to pay in the range of HK$200–$300 for a decent bottle of olive oil. High-end olive oils that can go for HK$500 or more are simply “too much.” 

Serving style

Though recent studies have shown that even extra virgin olive oils have a higher smoking temperature than previously thought, Stefano still vigorously attests that it would be a waste to cook with good quality olive oil; it should be served raw and paired with specific dishes for the right balance.

Another food rule that most of us have broken many times is dipping bread in a mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Bread should be served only with high-quality olive oil, if at all.

Varieties

Similarly to wine, the taste and flavour of olive oil is tied to the climate, soil and terroir. Depending on the region, there can be hundreds of varieties; if you’re just looking for a decent bottle, be sure to always select extra virgin olive oil, which is the highest quality available, as it’s met certain standards of production (e.g. organically farmed, cold-extraction, no preservatives or chemicals added, etc.). 

As a result, it tends to have more of a true olive oil taste, with an intense, grassy, fruity flavour that’s also bitter with a peppery tinge at times.

Here are some extra things to know about using olive oil in your meals:

How to use olive oil?

Olive oil can be used in several ways. Some major of them are as follows:

  1. You can either add it to your salad dressings or drizzle it over your salad. A drizzle oil bottle comes in handy for the latter.
  2. Those who love their pasta and savoury baked goods — be it buns or bread — adding a little olive oil will enhance the flavour and do the magic.
  3. Switch to olive oil when baking, frying or sautéing. According to a 2017 report, olive oil not only maintains but also increases the nutritional value of food. How, you ask? The antioxidants present in olive oil are transferred to the food during frying.
  4. Make meat, fish and vegetables even more nutritious by marinating them in olive oil.
  5. You can also make healthy dips using olive oil. Mix some white beans, garlic and olive oil in a food processor. Add a dash of your favourite herbs and spices to give it a required kick.
olive oil
Drizzle olive oil over your salads (Image credit: Jessica Lewis/Unsplash)

How to judge the purity of olive oil?

It is important that you consume high-quality olive oil, and the label is your guide to choosing the right olive oil. While shopping for your best pick, remember to read the label carefully and opt for cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. 

Premium quality extra virgin olive oil is usually expensive, so be wary of brands that are selling you this oil at cheap rates. Ensure that the harvest date is within the last 15 months for better quality.

You can also check the purity of olive oil by storing some in a glass jar and keeping it in the refrigerator for 24 hours. The high monounsaturated fats (MUFA) content in olive oil ensures that it freezes, if it is pure.

Another way to check its purity is to take some oil in a glass and warm it with your hands. After two-three minutes, bring the glass close to your nose and try smelling the oil, it should smell like fresh grass, tomato, spinach, apple or citrus— indicating its purity.

What are the top olive oil brands?

Molinera Pomace Olive Oil, Basso Olive Oil, Beoliva Olive-Pomace Oil, Contadina Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Mazza Pomace Olive Oil — are some top olive oil brands you can try.

What is the best time to use olive oil?

While it is good to include olive oil in all your meals, you can also have one tablespoon of olive oil first thing in the morning. You can also mix a little lemon juice to it to boost your digestion.

Consuming olive oil helps in detoxification of the digestive system as well. Those vying for clear and glowing skin can try this out. 

Christina Tam is a wine & spirits columnist for Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong. A communications professional by day, Christina is an experience-seeking oenophile who is constantly inspired by wine’s ability to transport through its geography, culture and history with one sip. Follow her on Instagram @madame_toastte