Opinion: What goes into producing Extra Virgin Olive Oil

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During the past few months, I have had the pleasure of sharing information regarding the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegars. Since olives are a fruit, the time that olives are harvested and the methods of harvesting and storage determine the ultimate quality of the olive oil produced.

In order to have a clear understanding of all of the variables that result in the olive oil you have on your table, I would like to share some information with you.

To help make the technical aspects easier to understand, this information is being brought to you by Veronica Foods Company, which has been importing fine extra virgin oil into the United States from around the world since 1924.

Veronica Foods Company supplies selected specialty retail stores like Olive Oil Traders-Flagstaff.

I am very proud that my product supplier is a nationally recognized leader when it comes to sourcing and importing the finest extra virgin olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars.

Timing is Everything When Picking Olives

The most critical decision and least understood variable in producing fine olive oil is the level of ripeness of the fruit when the olives are harvested, affecting both yield and organoleptic characteristics. Additional factors of regional variations harvest time, risk of frost, and mill schedules affect the quality of the finished product.

Theoretically, there exists an exact moment when ripeness and acidity levels are at their respective optimums in every olive. Crushing the fruit before this imaginary “moment” or peak of ripeness will translate to a lower yield and greener tasting oil. “Grassy” or greener tasting oil is the result of higher levels of chlorophyll still held in the fruit.

Crushing the fruit before it is ripe does provide one major benefit: the acidity levels are much lower in unripe fruit. Since the primary chemical test for grading olive oil focuses on the acidity level, this early harvest oil is sometimes cynically referred to as the “virgin maker.” The lower yield, and bitter tasting aspects resulting from crushing olives before they are ripe can be offset by using this oil as a blending agent that serves to lower the acidity levels of oils that might not otherwise meet the chemical standard. Early harvest olive oil can also provide a semblance or note of freshness to oils that are otherwise tired.

Conversely, crushing olives that are overripe will produce olive oil that is smoother and softer in its inherent intensity and sought after fruity characteristics. The practice of letting the fruit become overripe on the tree has the significant economic benefit to the crusher of increasing the overall ratio and yield of oil to olive by weight. This, of course, lowers the cost of the oil in a big way. The acidity level (free fatty acids, or FFAs) rises as the fruit begins to decompose, increasing until it is unfit for human consumption – until it is refined, one of the main reasons why there is so much refined olive oil produced.

Farmers who let their olives become overripe on the tree are rewarded economically by a very high yield. The difference in yield from early harvest oil (12 percent to 16 percent oil to olives) and late harvest yield (20 percent to 28 percent) is significant and increases in yield between 33 percent and 133 percent can be achieved. Today, the world market price that separates refined olive oil from extra virgin olive oil is less than 12 percent.

The competing interests of product yield, acidity levels and flavor profile make when the olive is crushed the single most important consideration when it comes to producing high quality extra virgin olive oil. If the fruit is crushed before it is ripe, it will be excessively expensive and the oil will have a bitter less fruity chlorophyll taste. If the fruit is allowed to become too ripe, then it will be unfit for consumption unless it is first refined. When either consideration of higher yield or lower acidity level becomes too dominant, the cost and quality of the oil suffer. It seems fitting that a balanced approach is the most rewarding one.

Now you know what goes into the extra virgin olive oil that you enjoy at home and with your family and friends. If you have any specific questions, I hope that you will give me a call. FBN

Article by Mike Kilpatrick

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