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The Olive Oil Cooking Project

I’m a member of three olive oil taste panels that meet regularly. At our tasting sessions we evaluate oils using cobalt-blue glasses so we can’t see the color, which has nothing to do with the taste. First we smell each oil, then sip it, swirling it around in our mouths, and swallow it. We complete a score sheet for each oil. There is no bread for dipping. In fact, the oil never touches any other food during these sessions. But most people don’t use olive oil this way.

One special tasting involved tasting olive oils at room temperature, then tasting the same oils again after they had been heated to see if there was a change in the taste—there was. The focus here too was on the taste of the oil; no other food was involved.

I decided to further the comparisons by organizing a session to cook a variety of foods in extra-virgin olive oil and another fat medium, using five different cooking techniques. This time, rather than focus on the taste of the oil, the tasters would focus on the taste of the food to see how the cooking medium contributed to its flavor.

This was the menu:

Pan cooking: scrambled eggs in extra-virgin olive oil versus butter
Roasting: asparagus drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil versus canola oil
Poaching: tuna in extra-virgin olive oil versus canola oil
Deep-frying: French fries in extra-virgin olive oil versus rice bran oil
Baking: pound cake with extra-virgin olive oil versus butter

I invited the panel members who had been at the heated-oil session. One taster graciously volunteered her centrally-located kitchen and a date was set.

Ten of us gathered on a spring morning. Tasters were given score sheets and plates of the foods, one at a time. One side of the plate held the food cooked with extra-virgin olive oil, the other side the same food cooked in the other fat. Tasters were asked to determine which food was cooked in extra-virgin olive oil, then rate the taste of both foods on a scale of one to ten. Different volunteers plated each pair, and because they knew which was which, held their comments until last.

First up were the scrambled eggs. The olive oil was a robust California Tuscan-style and the butter was unsalted. Salt and pepper were added to the eggs before cooking. The focus of the tasting nearly got derailed when people started talking about their preferences of egg cooking (some really didn’t like scrambled eggs, others hated eggs with runny whites, etc.), waxing with fond memories of having perfectly-cooked eggs as a child, and complaining about the amount of salt on the eggs. (This is a picky group! If this keeps up we’ll be here for several more hours, I thought.) The majority of tasters correctly identified the cooking fat and the majority of tasters preferred the eggs cooked in butter.

The roasted asparagus came next. A different robust Tuscan-style California extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil were drizzled on the vegetables and they were sprinkled with salt and pepper. Again, the majority of the group correctly identified the cooking fat. This time, all but one taster preferred the asparagus cooked in extra-virgin olive oil. Four of the tasters thought that the olive oil enhanced the taste of the asparagus. It was “sweeter,” “more bright,” and “had more asparagus flavor.”

Poached tuna was the third sample. I had cooked the tuna the day before following a recipe in my book, The New American Olive Oil. It was rubbed with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence. One portion was cooked in a medium California Tuscan-style extra-virgin olive oil, and the other portion in canola oil. It was served unadorned at room temperature. The majority of the tasters correctly identified the oils and the majority preferred the tuna poached in olive oil, with comments such as, ”better complexity,” “richer flavor,” and “more tuna-y.”

The French fries were the last of the savory samples. One batch was cooked in rice bran oil (chosen for its recent popularity in restaurant kitchens) and the other in a medium California Tuscan-style extra-virgin olive oil. The result of this tasting was a surprise for me. All but two tasters incorrectly identified the cooking oil. They preferred the fries cooked in rice bran oil—thinking they were fried in extra-virgin olive oil—mostly because of their texture (crisper) rather than their taste.

We broke for lunch, then had the pound cake for dessert. I used the recipe for the pound cake with candied oranges from my book. I baked one with a medium California Sonoma Blend extra-virgin olive oil and the other with unsalted butter. By the time we tried the cake, four of the tasters had left. Once again, the majority knew which fat was in each cake. The results were mixed: two preferred olive oil, one preferred butter, and there were three ties.

Although this was hardly a scientific experiment, a few things stood out. In four out of the five tastings, the majority of the group—granted, they are olive oil tasters—could correctly identify the samples cooked in extra-virgin olive oil, so oil isn’t just a medium for cooking food. It imparts a taste too. The extra-virgin olive oil actually enhanced the taste of the asparagus and tuna, whereas the bland canola oil added nothing. More tasters preferred butter with eggs, and butter in pound cake, perhaps because they are more traditional pairings, or because they evoke pleasant food memories.

The French fry tasting results strayed from the other four. Texture, not taste, seemed more important. (Modernist Cuisine cites the golden color and crunchy texture as the raison d’etre of deep frying.) I suspect that the timing, and maybe the cooking temperatures, may have influenced the result. The fries cooked in extra-virgin olive oil were finished before the others, so they were slightly limp when they came to the table. In the past, I’ve had olive oil fries that were crisp on the outside, fluffy in the middle, with a distinct olive oil taste, and they were delicious. I was the outlier— one of two tasters who identified the olive oil fries, but the only one who preferred their flavor, even though they weren’t as crisp. Maybe it’s back to the kitchen to try this pairing one more time.


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