June 25, 2009

In My Pantry: Vinegar and Oil

Vinegar and Oil

Olive Oil

The oil you use to cook with will be the foundation flavor upon which you'll build. Even though heat destroys some of the oil's character, it will still play an important role in the final flavor profile of what you're cooking. That's why I never use anything other than extra virgin when I use olive oil.

Olive oils typically are available in four grades. Extra virgin olive oil is low in acidity--frequently less than 0.5% and never more than 0.8%--without detectable flavor or aroma flaws and mechanically produced. Virgin olive oil has acidity up to 2.0%. is without detectable flavor or aroma flaws, and is mechanically produced. Olive oil, also called ordinary olive oil, has acidity up to 3.3% and is a mixture of extra virgin olive oil and lampante olive oil. Lampante olive oil is not fit for consumption as is, and is treated with caustic chemicals to rectify the problems and remove flavor.

The flavor profile of extra virgin olive oil depends on a number of factors, including the type of olives used to produce it and when the olives were harvested. Generally olives will be harvested early, while they're still unripe, or will be harvested late, as they start to fall off the tree.

Early harvest olives, those grown in cooler climates, and those grown in cooler years, tend towards green, astringent, bitter, pungent, leafy-herbal, and olive-fruity flavors and aromas. Tuscan oils are usually early harvest, and have what's called pizzicante--a tendency to grab the back of the throat with a pungent or peppery finish.

Late harvest olives and those grown in hotter climes tend toward sweet, light, flowery, and nutty-fruity flavors and aromas. If you want a delicate and mild oil look to Moroccan oils or California oils made from Mission or Manzarillo olives.

For delicate and mild oil, I prefer Le Fasce from Italy and Olio Santo from California. The fruitier, more fragrant oil of Alziari (France) is an excellent choice, while Lungarotti (Italy) adds some pizzicante. If I'm making pesto I prefer the more olive and pepper flavored oils, particularly Espuny, a Spanish oil with a distinctly piney note. L'Estornell, also from Spain, is a wonderfully olive-y oil. When I want a green oil with the aroma of a newly mown lawn I will select Ravida, Banfi, or Marfuga, all from Italy.

Deborah Krasner has written an excellent guide to olive oils called The Flavors of Olive Oil. She explains a lot about how and what to taste and includes flavor profiles for about 200 different oils.

 Other Oils

There are other oils in my pantry, of course. I use tea seed oil for stir-frying because of its high smoke point. For a nut oil I prefer hazelnut (filbert) or pistachio.

Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar is made by reducing the juice of Trebbiano grapes, then straining the resulting boiled must. The boiled must is then reduced 30-50% to produce saba, a sweetener used during the Roman Empire. The saba is barrelled and allowed to acetify and evaporate for ten years or more, all the while being exposed to fluctuating temperatures. The result is aceto balsamico tradizionale.

In my opinion, the very best balsamic you can get for less than $100 is Villa Manodori Balsamic Vinegar. It's the one I use for everything, including dessert!

Other Vinegars

In addition to balsamic vinegar, I keep red wine and apple cider vinegars on hand. When I can find a good champagne vinegar, I like to keep it handy for lighter vinaigrettes.

If you're fortunate enough to find a sauternes vinegar, snatch it up. I've had some, and it makes a superior vinaigrette, especially when used with an excellent balsamic vinegar and an oil with some good pizzicante.


  1. Thanks for this informative post! I've started making my own vinaigrettes, and it's really opened my eyes to the differences in olive oils. I had never realized that they were as different as different wines! I'm going to have to put the book you linked to on my Christmas list.

    I still haven't ventured out of the realm of store brand vinegars - I'm excited to try some new ones.

  2. This is a really informative post. Thanks!

  3. Thanks for sharing your favorite oils and vinegar. -Tien:)