How To Taste Extra Virgin Olive Oil Like A Pro

A few years ago our friend Nancy Ash told us people gave her a “funny look” when she told them how she made a living. Basically, Nancy spends a lot of time slurping olive oil and biting into slices of tart green apple. We asked her recently if people still give her the occasional odd glance? “I still do get funny looks when I tell people that I’m a professional olive oil taster!” Nancy concedes.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Photo Courtesy of California Olive Oil Commission

As a trained taster and president of the consulting firm Strictly Olive Oil, Nancy teaches chefs, culinary pros – and anybody else who wants to learn – about the ins and outs of tasting extra virgin olive oil.

An extra virgin olive oil tasting – like a wine tasting – lets you experience an olive oil’s aroma, flavor and peppery quality, or pungency. You can also figure out what might be wrong with the oil. Mustiness or rancidity are “defects” found in lesser quality oils. To be certified as  true “extra virgin,” an olive oil must pass a barrage of tests – some conducted by lab technicians, and others done by a panel of olive oil tasters, like Nancy.

It’s the taster’s job to analyze the aroma, taste, and pungency of the oil to see if it passes muster.

Here’s how to conduct a tasting – something you could do with friends and family.

Nancy explains “the best way to discover an oil’s flavor” is to sip it on its own, without bread or other food. “This will allow you to savor the oil’s flavor without distraction,” she says.

First, pour about a tablespoon of oil into a wine glass, or similarly tapered glass. (Expert olive oil tasters sip from a tapered blue olive oil tasting glass, like the one pictured above; the shape of the glass concentrates the oil’s aromas.) Cover the glass with one hand while you hold the bowl of the glass in the other hand. Professional tasters warm the oil to 82 degrees Fahrenheit – but you don’t have to be so exact. About 70 degrees Fahrenheit should be fine.

Next come the “Four S’s,” as Nancy describes them:

  1. SWIRL – While you cover the top of the glass with one hand, swirl the oil to release its aroma molecules.
  2. SNIFF – Uncover the glass and hold the top up to your nose and quickly inhale the aroma. The scent is key to the oil’s fruitiness. “Take note of the intensity and the description of the aroma, “Nancy says.
  3. SLURP – Take a sip of the oil while also “sipping” a bit of air. The slurping action combines the oil with the air and spreads it throughout your mouth. Notice the oil’s “smell” in your mouth – the retro-nasal aromas – as well as the different sensations throughout your mouth.
  4. SWALLOW – Don’t worry. It’s just a small amount of oil! Notice if there is a peppery or stinging sensation in your throat, and how long the sensation lingers.

While tasting the oil, keep in mind the three positive attributes of true extra virgin olive oil:

  • Fruitiness, which you can sense from smelling the oil.
  • Bittery, reflected in a pleasantly bitter taste. “It’s a natural expression of the olive,” Nancy explains.
  • Pungency, the peppery or scratchy sensation in your throat when you swallow the oil. “Sometimes oils are referred to as one or two ‘coughers’ as this is a common response to pungency,” Nancy notes.

If you plan to sample another oil, take a bite from a tart green apple, followed by a swig of water. That will cleanse your palate.

That’s it. So go ahead and slurp away!

Bon appétit,

Your Friends at California Olive Ranch