Olive Oil Primer: How to Taste Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Nancy Ash says people give her a “funny look” when she tells them what she does for a living. She spends a lot of time slurping olive oil and biting into slices of tart green apple. “I’m an olive oil taster,” says Nancy.

As a trained taster and owner of the consulting firm Strictly Olive Oil, Nancy walked a group of chefs and culinary pros through an olive oil tasting at our recent Harvest Retreat in northern California.

Here’s how she does it.

An extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)  tasting – like a wine tasting – really lets you experience an olive oil’s aroma, flavor and peppery quality, or pungency. You can also figure out what might be wrong. 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, such as Nancy.

“The definition of extra virgin olive oil is based on chemical factors tested in a lab and specific flavors in the olive oil,” she told us.

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 thorough tasting  – something you could do with friends at home. (By the way, biting into a tart green apple is a way to cleanse the palate.)

First, pour about a tablespoon of oil into a wine glass, or similarly tapered glass. (Expert olive oil tasters sip from the blue olive oil tasting glass, like the one pictured here.) Cover the glass with one hand while you hold the bowl of the glass in the other hand. You want the oil to be about 70 degrees Fahrenheit – considered the best temperature for tasting.Olive oil consultant Nancy Ash describes how to taste olive oil

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 the aromas.
  2. SNIFF – Uncover the glass and hold the top up to your nose and quickly smell the oil. The scent is key to the oil’s fruitiness. You want to get one big “sniff impression” of the oil.
  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,” said Nancy.
  • Pungency, the peppery or stingy sensation in your throat when you swallow the oil.

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

Finally, here’s something to keep in mind while you taste. Unlike other countries, the United States hasn’t adopted standards defining extra virgin olive oil. The bottom line: Not all “extra virgin olive oil” sold in the United States is the real thing – although EVOO produced in California must be officially certified.

That said, slurp away!

Bon appétit,

Claude S. Weiller
Vice President of Sales & Marketing
California Olive Ranch