Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Getting to Know Olive Oil

In our fat-phobic society, few people like to concede that there actually are fats that are good for us.  However, research has shown that for all the bad fats that put us at risk for heart disease, there are also good fats that actually protect us from disease.

A diet that includes good fats such as olive oil can protect your heart by raising your HDL-the beneficial cholestrerol that helps remove the LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, from your blood-without raising your total cholesterol level.  Olive oil is of course a mainstay of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to be one of the most healthful diets in the world.

There are several types of olive oil.  Most can be used interchangeably, but once you've learned to appreciate the flavor difference, you will be, hard pressed to use just any ol' olive oil.  Almost all of the the domestic varieties of olive oil are grown and harvested in California; imported varieties come from Italy, Greece, France, and Spain.  The color and flavor can vary, depending on the type of olive, where it's grown, and under what conditions.

Olive oils are graded according to their acid content.  The best olive oils are "cold-pressed," meaning that the oil is extracted by exerting pressure on the olives.  This results in a naturally low acid content.  Oils that have not been obtained through cold-pressing have been extracted through a chemical or steam process.

Extra virgin olive oil is the oil from the first pressing, with an acid content of 1 percent.  All domestic extra virgin olive oil is cold-pressed; only about half of the imported extra virgins are cold-pressed.  Extra virgin is considered the best olive oil because it is the most flavorful; it is also the most expensive.  Virgin olive oil is also from the first pressing but has a higher level acidity, about 2 percent.

The flavor of extra virgin and virgin olive oils tends to break down at high heat, so use them when you want maximum olive flavor, such as in salad dressings, in soups and stews, and for dipping.  Use other, less expensive olive oils for frying.

Fino olive oil is a blend of extra virgin and virgin.  Oil thats labeled simply "olive oil: or "pure olive oil" is a blend of refined olive oil and virgin or extra virgin olive oil; it's higher in acid, making it better for frying due to its high smoke point.

"Light" olive oil earns its name, not because it is lower in fat or calories, but because it is a lighter color and has a lighter flavor due to the refining process.  Use it in cooking and baking when you don't want an olive flavor but you want the health benefits of olive oil.

Olive oil should be stored in a cool, dark place where it will keep for about six months.  It also can be stored in the refrigerator; chilled olive oil turns cloudy, but that condition is easily reversed by returning the oil to room temperature.

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