This season we partnered with the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) to offer a collection of the best extra-virgin olive oils on the market. To learn how to best appreciate the oils, we turned to COOC Education Coordinator Nancy Ash for tasting tips. Here, she explains how to host an olive oil tasting at home — no expertise required.
Consumers are faced with so many choices when they are selecting extra-virgin olive oils. An olive oil tasting can be both fun and educational, and it’s an affordable way to taste and compare different oils at home. You don’t have to be an expert to pull it off, either! Use these guidelines to get started.
An olive oil tasting is similar to a wine tasting — both wine and olive oil are liquids obtained by pressing fresh fruit (yes, olives are a fruit)! There are hundreds of varieties of both grapes and olives; varietal and region of origin are just two of the many factors that affect their flavors. In fact, you may be pleasantly surprised by the range of flavors found in extra-virgin olive oils.
As the tasting host, your first consideration is how many people can comfortably sit at your table. Each person will need a place setting including a placemat (preferably a sheet of white paper), a glass for each oil (wine glasses are best because plastic interferes with aromas and oil will seep through paper), a “spit” cup (disposable cup lined with a paper napkin), a water glass, apple slices, napkin, and a pen or pencil to jot down notes.
To avoid oil spills, don’t crowd your guests too closely together. Be sure to protect your tabletop from inevitable spills. Use a white or neutral color tablecloth with no designs so you don’t inadvertently overwhelm your guests’ senses.
The number of oils to serve depends upon the number of guests you have, the tasting experience of those guests, and the amount of time for the activity. For beginners, provide at least three and no more than eight oils; allow 10-15 minutes per oil for tasting and discussion.
It’s not necessary to conduct the tasting blindly, but it does add an element of fun and surprise. To organize a blind tasting, place the bottles inside paper bags (secure the top of the bag to the bottle with a rubber band or tape), and mark them with a code before pouring the samples. Or make it a “double blind” tasting by having one person bag the bottles and a second person write the code on the bags. Blind tastings prevent preconceptions from affecting the results; the guest who thinks he prefers Italian oils may be surprised to learn that his favorite in a blind tasting was from California instead!
After pouring the samples, cover each glass with a small piece of paper so aromas won’t escape. Keep the glasses covered throughout the tasting until you taste that particular sample. Evaluate one oil at a time; if you smell all of them before you taste them, you’ll confuse your senses.
There are four steps to evaluating an oil, which we call the four Ss: Swirl, Sniff, Slurp and Swallow. First, gently swirl the oil in the glass to release the oil’s aromas. Do this by holding the bowl of the glass in one hand while the other hand holds the cover on top. After swirling, uncover the glass and quickly take a deep sniff (inhale) of the oil. Consider if the aroma was pleasant or unpleasant, faint or strong, and write down your impressions, including if the aroma is reminds you of anything else. Some common descriptors are fresh-cut grass, tomato leaf, flowers, fruit (apple), spices (cinnamon) and herbs (mint), but don’t feel limited by this terminology.
Next, taste the oil by slurping a small amount into your mouth while also “sipping” a bit of air. This step might take some practice, but don’t be embarrassed by any noises you make while slurping. By mixing the oil with air as you slurp, you help to distribute it all over your tongue and the roof of your mouth, which allows you to sense more of the aromas and flavors in the oil. While the oil is on your palate, notice its retro-nasal aroma through the back of your nostrils (while eating we do this naturally, but it takes a bit of practice to be aware of it.)
Lastly, swallow the oil (really — it’s only a small amount!), although some people might choose to use their spit cup instead.
Write down your impressions of the oil. Think about how bitter it was, and if it seemed spicy or pungent as you swallowed it. Considering both the aroma and flavor, think about if the oil was balanced or if one element overpowered another. And remember that contrary to popular belief, the oil’s color is not an indicator of its flavor or quality, so there’s no need to comment on it.
In between oils, tasters need to cleanse their palates. At wine tastings you may use water to clean the mouth, but oil is not water soluble, which makes it more difficult to refresh your palate. Bread and other foods can neutralize flavors in the oil, so instead use tart green apples (like Granny Smiths) to refresh the palate, followed by either still or sparkling water. If you must have bread with the oils, use a plain, sweet baguette with no seeds.
Wait until everyone has finished tasting to discuss the oil — its impression will be fresh on your mind, and you can re-taste during the discussion. When your guests have finished sampling all of the oils, have them rank the oils from most to least favorite and compare the results. (This should make for lively conversation!)
You can extend the experience by serving foods prepared with the different oils. This can be as simple as serving bread or bruschetta, cheeses, and salads and allowing your guests to drizzle their favorite oils onto the foods. That way, they can observe if pairing oils with certain foods changes their perception of them. Alternatively, you can serve a more elaborate meal, incorporating the oils from the tasting into each course, including dessert.
Comparative tastings will help you find your favorite oils and build your flavor memory and descriptive vocabulary. Learn to appreciate the wide range of flavors in extra-virgin olive oil, and these oils will become the stars in your cooking.