Extra virgin olive oil finds countless applications in the kitchen, because it is an extremely versatile ingredient. As we have stated many times, it can be used for either cooking or dressing: in the latter case, only a few drops of it can elevate any dish, from appetizers to desserts, from traditional recipes to more daring creations.
Ideal both as a dressing and for cooking
Extra virgin olive oil is a complete source of nourishment. It can be used as a simple condiment, but if properly emphasized, can become the star ingredient of many preparations. Even when it is used for cooking, it is important to pair it properly with all the other components of the dish. Achieving the perfect balance may be difficult, especially when the oil in question is used for cooking: balance is neither achieved by chance nor by scrupulously following a pedantic series of rules. Whenever extra virgin olive oil meets another ingredient, it will inevitably change both its personality and the way the other component of the dish is perceived.
Precise rules must be followed when combining different ingredients. Great care in particular should be devoted to oil pairing, because unlike oils made from seeds, extra virgins do not have a standard sensory profile. Seed-derived oils are colourless, odourless and tasteless, whereas extra virgin ones have character, sensory traits that must be fully understood to be properly exploited. If a dish seems to have a strange or overpowering flavour of oil, an unpleasant bitterness, pungency, or even astringency, as in the case of new oils, it is often only because the cook is incapable of pairing. To comprehend the features of an extra virgin olive oil, it is necessary to overcome a few, deeply rooted preconceptions, which can be quite difficult to eradicate. Only a certain technical ability will help do so, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
An unbalanced dish can occur, and indeed, it is almost inevitable. The fault however is not of the extra virgin olive oil, but usually lies in the user, who is often incapable of correctly highlighting the features of this extremely versatile ingredient. Admittedly, there is very little literature on the subject of olive oil pairing, and it is therefore essential to first learn to discern the various expressive traits of olive oils, and only in a second stage, try one’s hand at pairing, and start exchanging ideas and experiences with other cooks. This is certainly more challenging than just employing standard olive oils or even worse, oils made from seeds. The latter are just nondescript fatty compounds, and would be easy to use, since they have no personality, and add nothing the dish. They may improve the texture, but certainly not the flavour. A dish on the other hand should be tasty, and stir emotions in whoever savours it. The cook should always add that personal touch that makes all the difference. The skilful use of extra virgin olive oil always reveals a cook’s talent and ability. Whoever wants to experiment in the kitchen will never discard such a precious ingredient, so challenging yet so interesting from every point of view.
The first step it to overcome a number of deeply-rooted prejudices. It is not true, for instance, that extra virgin olive oils tend to cover the flavours of the other ingredients of a dish. A bitter, pungent oil, when used for cooking, loses much of these characteristics, because heat tones them down, often quite dramatically. The other ingredients used also play an important role. When immersed in a liquid solution, bitterness disappears, because the phenols causing this sensation undergo hydrolysis, and are broken down into smaller, simpler compounds devoid of all bitterness. This is particularly true when the oil is added to an acidic water solution such as tomato sauce, which reduces its bitter notes, without affecting the oil’s typical aromas. These chemical and physical processes should always be kept in mind when cooking, because like all other ingredients subjected to heating, oil undergoes important and often substantial transformations. A few examples might help clarify these issues. A delicate ingredient doesn’t go well with a bitter, pungent and strongly flavoured oil. If the latter were to be used to prepare mayonnaise, the result would be an unbalanced sauce with a certain roughness that would make it quite unpalatable.
Every ingredient should be paired with an appropriate oil. Another example is artichoke stir-fry. A lightly fruity extra virgin, sweet and delicate to the palate, is not the ideal solution. In this case, a more intensely fruity oil would be better. The golden rule is: every ingredient has its oil. It would seem obvious, yet seldom do we see this occur. Only recently we have started to deal more systematically with food-oil pairing, and only because finally we have realized that the quality and features of the countless extra virgin oils available on the market deserve to be properly exploited. When doing so, we must always keep in mind that there are no absolute truths. The perfect match between food and oil does not exist, and indeed, cannot exist.
True, there are some guidelines that we can follow, but ultimately, what really counts is personal taste and the complexity of the ingredients in a dish. To speak in absolute terms would have no sense, but there are a couple of things worth remembering. Whoever uses olive oil should never fear new challenges, but on the contrary, be willing to try out new combinations. There are no fixed rules, it is the specific sensory profile of the oil that dictates what path to follow. As we all know, not all extra virgins are the same. There have no standard organoleptic profile, or at least, not in the case of superior extra virgins. Nowadays, these are abundantly present on the market, and one can savour truly extraordinary blends of extra virgin olive oils made from olives of different varieties and origin. The quality of some of these oils is truly remarkable and you will be spoilt for choice. Also the single-varietal oils can be extremely interesting: in this case too, the producers are working well, and we can only encourage them to continue along this road, and do even better.
It is essential to taste the oil to decide the best pairing. It should always be possible to detect its fruity notes, because an oil that has lost all trace of the fruit from which it comes, is a dull, lifeless thing, a fatty substance, and nothing more. One should always use those oils that can truly complement the other ingredients in the dish, and perhaps develop and generate new flavours and sensations. Equally important is the feeling that these oils leave in the mouth: they must be fresh and clean, possess a good fluidity and persistency of their aromatic notes, as well as a general harmony and balance of their bitter, pungent and astringent traits.
The fruity sensations detected by the nose may range from delicate to intense. It is on the grounds of an oil’s fruitiness that one can make the most suitable food pairing, following these simple guidelines:
Case A: food with a light and delicate structure. The recommended oil is a light fruity one, soft and delicate, with a tinge of pungency and bitterness. The cooking method should be simple, so that the ingredients remain as genuine as possible.
Case B: food with an intermediate structure, having more intense aromas, calls for more sapid oils, i.e. harmonious, well-balanced, rotund oils, with a fresh, clean bouquet and an intermediate degree of fruitiness. The cooking technique may be less bland, but not overly aggressive.
Case C: food with a more robust structure, and clear, marked aromas: in this case, one can freely use oils with a stronger flavour, fruitiness, bitterness and pungency, keeping in mind that they must always be harmonious.
To avoid any misunderstanding, it is worth repeating that these are just guidelines: they shouldn’t be taken too literally, because every oil, especially complex ones with a strong personality, may not fall into any of these groups.
There are two good reasons why we cannot be too categorical. The first is that personal taste always plays an important role: each of us perceives things differently, such as for instance, the bitterness of an oil, hence it depends on the user whether it is acceptable or not. The second reason is linked to the character of the oil: it may be more or less versatile, and have perhaps a delicate flavour but a strong scent. Consequently, nothing can be considered undisputable.
In brief, pairing does not follow strict rules. In many cases it depends on the inspiration and creativity of the cooks, as well as their desire to try out new combinations. For example, certain extra virgin olive oils have a powerful scent and strong, bitter flavour, yet they pair extremely well with delicate cheeses such as mozzarella. It is utterly untrue that dairy products only go well with fine, delicate oils. Quite the contrary: Dutch researchers have recently discovered that sodium caseinate, a protein present at high levels in cheese, bonds with the phenols present in extra virgin olive oils, which are responsible for its bitterness. Consequently, the perceived bitterness of the oil decreases significantly, down to 60% of its original value. This is because the compounds thus formed are so complex that our taste buds are incapable of discerning and perceiving them.
Photo by Olio Officina Festival