Frequently Asked Questions

Buying and Using Australian Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Article by Richard Gawel & the Australian Olive Association (June 2006)

What is the difference between EXTRA VIRGIN olive and "pure" or "light" olive oil?

  • Extra virgin olive oil is essentially the naturally extracted juice from fresh olives. The olives are crushed into a paste, and the oil is physically extracted from this paste without the use of chemical solvents or excessive heat. Extra virgin olive oil has a distinctive olive fruity aroma and flavour and contains natural antioxidants.
  • The aroma and flavour, of olive oil adds complementary flavours to a wide variety of dishes. 'Pure' and 'light' olive oils are oils that have been refined. As such they lack the aroma, flavour and the natural antioxidant content of extra virgin olive oils.
  • In fact the word "light" refers to their light colour, aroma and flavour, not as some think “light” in Calories.
  • Is it true that "light" olive oil contains fewer calories than extra virgin olive oil?
  • Absolutely not! All olive oils have very similar energy values. The word "light" is made in the context of them having light aroma, flavour and colour.
  • Should I only buy 'first cold pressed' oil?

The vast majority of extra virgin olive oil produced throughout the world today including Australia is done so without the use of the traditional olive oil press. As such, the term, as it was first coined, has little relevance today. However, because of its wide acceptance amongst the olive oil buying public, few producers have discarded the term. So, in light of the adoption of modern continuous processing technology that does not involve any form of pressing, the term 'cold pressed' has taken on an analogous meaning.

Incidentally, the peak olive industry body in Australia, the Australian Olive Association recommends that Australian producers refrain from using this term when the oils are made using modern processing technology. A number of processors are now using the term ‘cold extracted’ to accurately reflect modern processing methods.

Aren't extra virgin olive oils supposed to be good for my health?

Most extra virgin olive oils contain high levels of monounsaturates and antioxidants such as polyphenols and tocopherol. These attributes are sought after by the health conscious.

There are so many Australian extra virgin olive oils to choose from. What do I look for?

  • First and foremost, consider purchasing oil that you will find useful for the culinary purposes you have in mind.
    Extra virgin olive oils can be intensely flavoured and can also be strongly bitter and pungent. Many 'early harvest' styles fit in this category. Others can be very fruity with only hints of bitterness and pepper, while 'late harvest' styles are typically mild with very ripe fruity flavours.
  • As a general rule, oils with a strong flavour suit strongly flavoured dishes, and mild oils are used in dishes that are delicately flavoured. This guide provides descriptions that emphasise oil style, so it should be of help when making your purchase decision. Alternatively, ask your merchant or the producer.
  • Secondly, choose to buy the freshest oils e.g. oils made within the last 12 months or so. Not all will have the year of harvest or date of pressing clearly marked, but if they do this makes the selection of the freshest oils much easier.
  • Some producers indicate on their label that they have won an award in olive oil show. Many of these awards are of value and can guide you in selecting the very best oils Australia has to offer.
  • Finally if in any doubt, either consult this guide or speak to your merchant. Better still; why not contact the oil maker. Most are more than happy to help and answer questions regarding their oils, and olive oil in general.

Does the term ‘extra virgin’ necessarily imply outstanding oil?

You may find this surprising but the answer is no. Throughout the world, the term extra virgin implies that the oil is 100% made from olives, is free of unpleasant flavours and has some degree of fruitiness. That is, the label 'extra virgin' is simply a reasonable guarantee that the oils will add something positive to your food. Obviously within this broad specification there exist rather bland extra virgin oils right through to very complex oils with outstanding aroma and flavour.

What do I look for in a retailer of extra virgin olive oil?

A good retailer knows the oils he or she stocks, and most importantly sees the use of olive oil as an important part of the entire culinary experience. Good merchants should:

  • Be able to advise you on the right style of extra virgin olive oil for your intended use; offer a sample to taste;
  • Be able to recommend good examples of that style;
  • Have a high turnover of olive oil so that it is fresh;
  • And ideally, they only stock oils that are fresh and in good condition e.g. new season’s oils.

Not surprisingly, reputable oil producers like dealing with reputable merchants. This relationship often means that an oil producer will voluntarily replace stock that is not fresh with their new season’s oils to ensure that the customer gets the best produce available. Yes, it does happen!

Do Australian show medals on labels mean anything?

Yes, most do. Despite the relatively young age of the Australian olive oil industry, the Australian olive oil show circuit is remarkably sophisticated. Olive oil shows vary in their level of competitiveness and standard of judging. However, the better ones attract over 150 exhibits. They are independently judged by panels of experienced oil judges, under the auspices of an independent and highly experience Chairperson. All the major recognised shows are also conducted under a standardised set of rules and processes, so there is good comparability in results across the shows.

You can find out more about how a typical Australian Show is organised. The most competitive and longest established shows in Australia are the Australian National Show, the South Australian Show, and the Perth Royal Show. These are held in August and September of each year, with results being publicised shortly thereafter.

The results of the most recent shows can be found by logging onto the ‘Australia Olive Associations’ website.

Where are olives grown in Australia?

Olives for olive oil are grown throughout the southern Australia and in the south-western corner of Western Australia. The major olive growing regions are (from west to east):

  • Moore River Region, Margaret River and Great Southern Regions of Western Australia;
  • Fleurieu Peninsula and the East/South East of South Australia;
  • North, Central and Western Victoria;
  • Hunter Valley Northern Slopes of New South Wales, and the Murray Irrigation Area;
  • South Eastern Queensland;

There is also a small but growing industry in Tasmania and there are olive groves in many other parts of Australia.

Does the colour of the olive oil say anything about its quality?

No, the colour of an olive oil is related to the amount of chlorophyll it contains. Some olives are picked early in the season. These olives tend to make green coloured oil. Olives harvested late in the season will typically produce golden coloured oils. Both oils may be technically equivalent in quality but very different in taste & style. There are also many examples of green coloured oils that taste remarkably ripe, and golden oils that have strong grassy herbal characters. Many strongly green coloured oils will turn a more golden colour when stored.

Why are the European extra virgin olive oils found in the supermarket generally cheaper than most Australian oils?

Two reasons. Firstly, the European industry has greater economies of scale, but also the production of olive oil in Europe is subsidised by the European Union. Australian producers do not receive direct financial assistance from their government to produce olive oil.

The term extra virgin also only implies that the oil is free of defects and has an olive like fruitiness. Within this broad specification there is room for a wide range of qualities. So, a typical imported extra virgin oil bought in a supermarket costing $6/ litre will in all probability be significantly lower in quality than a top $25 Australian olive oil. This is despite the fact that they both have legitimate extra virgin status.

How do I interpret the "best by" date on Australian and European oils?

Australian olive oil producers are now obliged to put a 'best by' date on their olive oils. However, it is left up to the discretion of the producer to specify the date. This decision should be based on historical knowledge of the longevity of oils, as well as on reasonable commercial considerations. It is far better to select oils that clearly state the year, and preferably month, of production. Provided the oil has been properly stored, it should be more than fit for its intended use for a period greater than 12 months.

Incidentally, as European oils are bound the conventions of the International Olive Oil Council, they have different rules regarding 'best by' dates. These oils display 'best by' dates that are a maximum of two years after the date that the oil was packed. Remember, this may or may not mean that the oil was extracted from the olive two years before the 'best by' date, as the oil may have been in tank for some time before it was bottled.

Some labels make a point of saying that the olive oil was made within a short period of time after harvesting. What is the significance of this claim?

One of the most critical factors in making high quality olive oil is the time that elapses between harvesting the olive and extracting its oil. The greater the elapsed time, the higher the probability that the resultant oil will have an off flavour. The defects that can arise from delays in harvesting are called fusty, musty, and winey.

Ideally, olives should be processed into oil within 24 hours after harvesting.

Some producers state that their oils are robust or mild or fruity. What does this mean?

They are referring to the style of oil that is in the bottle. Robust oils, have firm bitterness and/or pungency (pepper), and as they are usually made from greener olives, typically display herbaceous aromas and flavours. Mild oils on the other hand by definition have low bitterness and pungency.

Mild oils are best used on delicately flavoured foods such as on white fish and mayonnaise, while robust oils better complement strongly flavoured foods such as roast meats and flavoursome soups. When it comes to bread dipping, either can be used, but most people have a personal preference for one style over another.

The term 'fruity' is more of a marketing rather than style term. That is, oil can be fruity, but represent a mild, medium or robust style.

Storing Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Where is the best place to store the extra virgin olive oil?

Extra virgin olive oils should be stored in a cool dark place. Most also refrigerate well. On the other side of the coin, the worst place to store olive oil is on top of the refrigerator, on the window sill or next to the oven. Olive oils will go rancid more quickly if stored in a warm environment, and light hastens the loss of the health giving vitamin E like compound tocopherol over the shelf life of the oil.

Are extra virgin olive oils harmed by refrigerating them?

No, and as such should be seen as a valid way of prolonging the shelf life of the oil. Some may solidify due to there being a naturally occurring proportion of saturated fats and/or waxes in their make-up. Even if this happens, they usually return to their normal state when they warm to room temperature. Occasionally, some may still remain a little turbid after coming back up to room temperature. If this occurs, warming the bottle using tepid water should clarify them. The aroma and flavour of the olive oil should not be affected in any way by refrigeration.

How long can I expect my extra virgin olive oil to last?

Extra virgin olive oils are best consumed young as it is at this time when their fresh olive like aromas and flavours are at their peak. Unlike wine, they do not mature with age, so the closer to their release date that you purchase and use them, the better. However, the higher levels of natural antioxidants and the higher proportion of monounsaturated fats generally found in extra virgin olive oil mean that they generally remain fresher longer than other edible oils.

Once a bottle is opened oxygen in the air will hasten the deterioration of the oil and the oil should be consumed quickly. It is therefore advantageous to buy oil in small bottles or in casks.

But as a guide, provided they are stored properly, the majority of extra virgin olive oils will retain good flavour, aroma and freshness for at least 12 months. By that time, new season oils will be on the market for you to try.

Can I use extra virgin olive oils for frying?

Yes, but to be honest, refined olive oils (that is those labelled as 'Pure' or 'Light') are probably a more cost effective alternative. Furthermore, refined oils begin to smoke at a higher temperature than most extra virgin olive oils, making them more suited to deep-frying. However, extra virgin olive oils are a better alternative when shallow frying.

Can I reuse olive oil?

Yes, extra virgin olive oils can be reused a few times. However, keep in mind that each time oil is heated and cooled it will lose some of its aroma, flavour, freshness and health giving polyphenols and tocopherol1. Recent research has also shown that olive oils heated by microwaving retain their natural polyphenols to a much greater extent compared with traditional heating methods1.

1. Source: Brenes et. al. (2002) Influence of thermal treatments simulating cooking processes on the polyphenol content in virgin olive oil. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Vol 51(5), 1415-20.

Other Interesting Questions

Do organic oils taste better?

To date there is no evidence that organically grown olives produce oils that are any more or less flavoursome than those that are not organically certified. However, you may wish to specifically seek out organically certified oil for other reasons.

Are olive oils made using the traditional method of mat pressing better than those made using the modern continuous (centrifuge) process?

In general, no. In this case, "traditional" is far from being the best. Most would agree that the modern continuous system favoured by most of the world's olive producer’s results in more consistent defect free oils with as good or better aroma and flavour than those produced with mat pressing.

The reason is simple. By their nature, the mats used in traditional presses are very absorbent and therefore retain oil after being used. As cleaning the mats to a near new 'spotless' standard is impractical in a commercial environment, most mats will eventually contain some old oil that is either rancid or has a fermented taste character. All subsequent oil produced from those same will also display these undesirable taste defects. Some traditional mat producers do maintain impeccable standards, and as such the oils that they produce have quite pristine flavours.

In Australia, and in most of Europe, the continuous (centrifuge) method of extracting oil has now become standard for a good reason.

How can Australian oils be as good as the European ones given that the European producers have hundreds of years of experience on their side?

Not many people are aware that the continuous method of olive oil extraction used to produce the vast majority of the world's olive oil today has only been in widespread use since the early 1970's. Furthermore, the new and favoured 'two phase' technology has only been commercially available since 1992. As such, the experience gap between European and other new world producers is not as wide as some would think.
Furthermore, the extraction of oil from olives is a relatively straightforward process involving only a couple of critical steps. These are very well known and understood. Most, if not all Australian olive oil producers know that if you use undamaged olives, process them quickly after picking, employ the services of a spotlessly clean mill, and don't strive for excessive extraction then sound quality olive oil will result.

Modern olive orchards such as those in Australia are generally better equipped than traditional European farms to harvest olives on time and have them processed quickly.

My advice is to try as many examples of each as you can, preferably without knowing what you are tasting. You can then make up your own mind about the relative qualities of Australian and European oils.

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