10 Steps for Mastering the Art of Olive Oil Tasting

Eating in Umbria

Wine tasting has become an integral part of travel and recreational culture.  It is something most of us hunger to enjoy and which offers a complex set of fixed and casual rules and norms which can be more than a little intimidating.  The ability to decipher, identify, and properly sample various types of wine has even become a cultural indicator of alleged sophistication and class.  With its famed wines Italy serves as home to a plethora of vineyards and opportunities to taste wine.  However, you may be surprised to learn that there is a second, equally enjoyable type of tasting available.  On par in fame and reputation, as well as heritage, with Italy’s rich wines is the nation’s olive oil.  While each town, city, and even family may have their own line of wine, the same is often true of olive oil.

If you’re like many Americans, Canadians (and others), myself included, you’ve probably just assumed that the “virgin” and “extra virgin” labels on olive oil at the super market were marketing speak tied to quality similar to how other foods might be marked as organic.  However, you may be surprised to learn, as I was, that this isn’t the case.  Each of these terms has meaning, and if the advertising is accurate (often it may not be), can have a significant impact on the taste, color, and feel of the olive oil.  These classifications will impact how strong the flavor of the oil is, its rich color, and its scent.  All of which can have a surprising impact when the oil is paired with or used in the preparation of other foods.

You can see my first attempt at sampling olive oil in the video below.  I’ve included the individual steps in written form immediately after for quick and easy reference. You’ll note at the end of the video that the taste of the mid-strength oil I was sampling was quite strong.  Strong enough, in fact, that the taste actually had a completely unexpected (though pleasant) burn to it – enough to make me cough, and to make my eyes water. A hearty thank you to fellow travel blogger Mike Sowden of Fevered Mutterings for playing camera man.

How to Taste Olive Oil

  1. Select an assortment of olive oils based on different strength and potency.
  2. Pour a small amount of olive oil into a tasting cup (pictured above).
  3. Cup it completely in your hands and warm it, allowing the warmth to activate the oil.
  4. Make sure that when you cup the glass in your hands you cover the top trapping the aromatic scent of the oil in.
  5. Lift your hand slightly allowing just enough space for you to dip your nose to your palms and inhale the aroma of the oil.  Take a moment to enjoy the scents you’ll discover.
  6. Take a sip of the oil, not too large, but also not too small.  You want enough to get a proper taste.
  7. Take the oil into your mouth and swish it around slightly coating the inside of your mouth.
  8. Now, the next part feels a bit odd but is important. Part your lips slightly with the oil in the front of your mouth and draw the air through and over the oil.  Allow it to bubble.  You should make a loud sipping/sucking noise.  This stage is where you’ll start to taste the complex flavors of the olive oil and where you’ll start to feel a burn from the stronger oils.
  9. Pass the oil from the back of your tongue to the front of your lips once again and note the flavor.
  10. Swallow some or all of the oil.

Types of Olive Oil

  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The good stuff. This type of olive oil has 1% acidity or less and comes from the first pressing of the olives. Though extra virgin oil can be found in most marketplaces there are growing concerns about the lack of standardization in the industry.
  • Virgin Olive Oil: Similar to Extra-Virgin, Virgin Olive Oil typically has an acidity of 1.5% and is made from olives which are slightly more ripe.
  • Olive Oil: Standard olive oil comes from the 2nd pressing or in some cases chemically refined olive oil. This type of olive oil is of a milder taste than virgin olive oil. This can be called pure or commercial oil.
  • Refined Olive Oil: Typically made from virgin olive oil this oil has little taste, an acidity of 3% or more and a less than ideal flavor and smell.
  • Mixed Olive Oil: Best avoided, these are made by mixing olive and pomace (recycled solid remains after previous pressing). They also often use a chemical extraction process which is counter-productive and undermines the benefits of naturally pressed olive oil.
  • Light & Extra Light Olive Oil: Deceptively these are not more diet friendly versions of olive oil. Rather, they just include some of the lowest quality combinations of chemically processed olive oils.

There’s much more depth to olive oil than I ever would have imagined. Of the oils provided for us to sample, I was absolutely shocked at how different the taste was from oil to oil. As with wine there is a wealth of terminology and steps for classifying the different flavors and sensations, but I’ll leave that for a future post. As someone who has always loved olive oil and uses it regularly this experience offered me an insight into an important, and previously overlooked element in many of my favorite meals.

This video was recorded while a number of fellow travel bloggers and I were guests at La Penisola, a beautiful country resort and restaurant along the shores of Lago di Corbara in Baschi, Umbria. While there they provided a most gracious introduction to the art of olive oil tasting as an introduction to their newly launched cooking classes which they’re calling Life School.