When you think about olive oil flavor, the first thing that comes to mind is the varietal used to make the oil. But people new to olive oil often do not know that harvest timing and fruit ripeness are at least as critical.
Unlike grapes where different colors are indicative of different varietals, olives change color as they mature throughout the season.
- Immature olives are green and quite firm. Their oils are high in polyphenols (anti-oxidants) and other flavor components. As a result, they are quite bitter and pungent and have a long shelf life thanks to their natural preservatives. The chlorophyll content is high, so the oils are often quite green. The yield is low.
- As the olive fruit matures from green to yellow-green, it starts to soften and the skin turns red-purple in color. This stage is called veraison. The olives still have high polyphenol content, but start to develop some ripe-fruity characteristics. Oils produced from fruit harvested at this stage have some bitterness and some pungency.
- As the fruit matures further, the skin turns from purple to black (although some varieties never turn completely black), and the flesh darkens all the way to the pit. At this stage, the polyphenol and the chlorophyll contents decline and the carotenoid content increases. Oils produced from late harvest fruit tend to be more golden in color, less bitter, less pungent, and have a shorter shelf life. They are often described as sweet oils.
If you want an oil with a strong taste and maximum health benefits, try to buy an early harvest extra virgin olive oil, or even an olio nuovo. Know that they are often more expensive because young olives don’t produce as much oil as mature ones. These oils complement stronger and more acidic foods beautifully.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a mild, buttery oil to bake with or drizzle over a mild cheese like mozzarella, a late harvest extra virgin olive oil will perform best.
Next month, we will look at the effect of extraction methods on olive oil flavor.