Thursday, April 17

The Perfect Pantry 2: Olive Oil

photo credit goes to ShellyAlmost all recipes call for fat. The important question isn't how much, but which one to choose from? In a well stocked pantry, having a variety of fats on hand is not only necessary, but also fun from a flavor standpoint. There are so many varieties to choose from, you could dress a salad or fry some calamari a dozen ways just by switching the oils.

Oils you'd Eat Out of the Bottle
There are a few oils that you'll want hanging around just to add zazz. Olive oil is the obvious one, but peanut oil, mustard seed oil, grape seed oil, and walnut oil all bring varying levels of complexity and flavor to your food. There also oils whose sole purpose in life is to deliver some other ingredient, like garlic infused olive oil or truffle oil.

Olive Oil
The well-stocked pantry has at minimum a high quality "eating" olive oil for fragrance, floral or spicy notes, and velvety roundness for greens, dipping bread into, or putting the finishing touch on everything from fish to flatbread. Like any crave-able food, there are hundreds of nuanced choices ranging from reasonable to ridiculous in terms of price. 

Exploring olive oil can get as narrow as you like, from comparing varietals and harvest years, to as broad as blended brands you can always rely on. For all eating oils, however, stick with extra virgin. It's the yield of the first press, and it has the most flavor. Subsequent pressings employ tricks to get more oil, but the flavor is either already gone or destroyed (for example, from heat) in the process.

California Oils
My choice for a mid-priced, always-on-hand oil is a local (Bay Area) grower called Bariani. They've got a great, unfiltered extra virgin that's a solid, full bodied all-around choice. I don't use this oil for cooking because heat destroys it's complexity, but I'll splash it on almost anything.

When I want to go a bit more upscale, I like Seckinger Arbequina. Arbequina olives are small, brown fruits mainly produced in Spain that produce a uniquely rich and peppery, delicious oil. Becky Seckinger is a fourth generation producer who makes small batch, organic oils that can handle center stage in any dish. She's got a bunch of varietals in addition to arbequina.

Storing Olive Oil
The key to experimenting with oil to try one at a time (in addition to your 'house' oil) since it ages quickly and dies once it's exposed to oxygen. So, in addition to only keeping small quantities on hand, it's best to keep all of your oils, no matter what you choose, in the fridge, not in the cupboard.

Next time, varietals, odd ball, and frying oils.

Photo credit goes to Shelley, who's got a Slow Food blog. Check it out here:


  1. Anonymous1:27 AM

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  2. Bariani is good but... I really go out of my way to get olive oil from Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufactory on Charter Oak in St. Helena. They have a killer Italian imported foods selection, too - and if you ask, they will even pull out the real Balsamico di Modena (at a price competitive with what I paid when I was at a fattoria di balsamico last summer in Modena).

  3. I used your description of olive oil as a model for my students for one of their writing assignments. The way you used the senses brought out the richness of olive oil. We all thought this was effective.

    One of my astute students interpreted the following line brilliantly.

    "The well-stocked pantry has at minimum a high quality "eating" olive oil for fragrance, floral or spicy notes..."
    He thought that you used "notes" as a way to describe the way floral and spicy shift in flavor as musical notes do on a page.

    Thank you Ben for your wonderful writing.

  4. I also love the trip to Napa Valley Olive Oil, and the oil.

  5. Thanks, Beth. For full disclosure, she's my sister...great praise regardless. Thanks, Beth!