Learning about oil

Olive oil is a wholesome foodstuff, always on hand in the kitchen and at table, but more than this, it is a whole universe of hues, aromas and flavour, of ancient traditions and scrupulous processing.

How is olive oil made?

Understanding the production methods for extra-virgin olive oil is fundamental for becoming informed consumers.

Making a quality EVO
Understanding the production methods for extra-virgin olive oil is fundamental for becoming informed consumers. Extra-virgin olive oil is made by pressing the olive fruit and not by extraction of fat from a seed, as happens with vegetable oils like sunflower, corn and peanut. This is an essential difference because the mission of the fruit is to defend the seed through polyphenols and other substances. By pressing the fruit, all these micronutrients are saved in the oil and then protect the body of the consumer. If you’re curious and want to find out how extra-virgin olive oil is made, keep reading!

The veraison or olive maturity index indicates how ripe the fruit is by assessing the changes in the colour of the olive fruit, known as the drupe. The most appropriate veraison index for starting harvest is that which will ensure the best balance for amounts and sensory profile of olive oil obtained. The veraison index varies according to the geographical area and olive cultivar grown. In the case of some oils, the fruit should be harvested when the drupe skin is green to yellow; in other cases, when it is reddish or pale purple; in yet others, when it is black. This is another reason why the colour of an oil may be greenish or yellowish without the quality being affected in any way.

Harvesting method
In order to obtain a good extra-virgin olive oil, the olives must absolutely be picked directly from the tree. If the drupes fall to the ground it means they are too ripe and will also be contaminated by contact with the ground, which means the oil made will be of poor quality. Olives may be picked manually or using mechanical devices. Manual picking systems are by hand or with the help of combs and rollers, and beating, a system whereby the branches are tapped with poles so the olives fall onto nets arranged around the base of the tree. Then there is shaking, a mechanical method using a mechanical shaker, which vibrates against the tree trunk and branches, causing the olives to fall.

Pressing or extraction
After harvesting, it is important to keep the olives in a ventilated place, and proceed to extraction of the oil within 24 hours, to avoid spoiling of the fruit and excessive acidity in the oil itself. Olive pressing facilities may use a traditional pressure system, or a more modern centrifuge extraction.

In the former, after a quick removal of twigs and impurities, the olives are ground into a paste by granite wheels. The olive paste is then moved onto round nylon pressing mats, then crushed by a hydraulic press, which separates the oil and water from the pomace oil. The olive oil is then separated from the water by a centrifuge.

The traditional method, however, is no longer sufficient for meeting hygiene and quality requirements defined by today’s oil-making industry, and is thus gradually being replaced by the centrifuge extraction method, which uses state-of-the-art continuous-cycle systems.

In the latter, the olives are vacuumed to remove twigs and leaves, then washed to remove soil and other impurities. Clean olives are thus processed to make a smooth paste using a hammer crusher. The next step is in a malaxer, a steel tank with helical blades that turn and coalesce droplets of oil into increasingly large drops. The final paste is then sent to a powerful horizontal centrifuge which separates the oil from the pomace and vegetation liquid.

A thousand and one uses for olive oil

Olive oil, in the kitchen… and elsewhere too.

The benefits of olive oil
For some time now, research has shown that olive oil is the healthiest and easiest to digest of all comestible types on sale. In addition to a high content of monounsaturated fatty acids, olive oil contains antioxidant phenolic agents, responsible for the pungent and bitter notes, and which counteract the harmful effects of free radicals and cellular aging. It is scientifically proven that in Mediterranean countries where olive oil is the quintessential condiment, the incidence of cardiovascular disease is extremely low and life expectancy is quite high. Indeed, olive oil is a foodstuff with unique nutritional characteristics which, in turn, provide many beneficial effects for our organism. Let’s look at a few of them:

  • Olive oil has a high monounsaturated fatty acid content that works to reduce the incidence of “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, helping to avert heart disease, high blood pressure and brain haemorrhages.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil is rich in vitamins A, D, E, K, beta-carotene and other antioxidants, useful in preventing tumours and reducing the effects of aging.
  • Olive oil helps to prevent and control diabetes, helps digestion, prevents gallstones, reduces dementia, and protects skin and hair tone.
  • The acidic composition of olive oil is similar to that of breast milk, which improves mineralization and absorption of calcium, thus stimulating bone growth and preventing osteoporosis.
  • Two tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on an empty stomach can help relieve chronic colds.
  • According to one study, oleic acid – of which olive oil is the main source – reduces breast cancer risk because it neutralizes the action of an oncogene found in about 30% of breast cancer patients.
  • Moreover, as shown by Columbia University College research, the olive-oil-based preparation Zyflamend stops 78% of prostate tumour cell growth.
  • Oleocanthal is an EVO molecule that mimics ibuprofen, alleviating pain and reducing inflammation. Low-dose anti-inflammatory drugs reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and some breast, colon, and lung tumours, as well as terminal dementias like Alzheimer’s Disease.

And the best choice for frying
When subjected to high temperatures in the presence of oxygen, oils undergo an acceleration of oxidation phenomena. Each oil has a maximum tolerance temperature called the “smoke point” beyond which it begins to decompose, producing substances that are very damaging for the body.

Of the three types of fat that make up an oil (saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated), polyunsaturated have the most unstable bonds, and lowest resistance to the action of heat. As a result, oils with a high percentage of polyunsaturated fats are to be avoided for frying.

Olive oil contains just 9% of polyunsaturated fat and has a critical temperature of 230 °C, far above the ideal temperature for frying (180 °C – 190 °C). Conversely, coconut oil (177 °C), sunflower oil (160 °C), soy oil (130 °C), corn oil (160 °C), margarine (150 °C), and butter (110 °C) have a lower critical temperature than frying temperature, and therefore pose higher risks in cuisine.

Olive oil, however, is made up mainly of monounsaturated fats (76%) and contains a very low percentage of saturated fats (15%). For this reason, it is healthier and more stable, so is by far the best choice for frying too. In tests, it was found that olive oil can be used up to six consecutive times for frying before it begins to decompose.

Extra-virgin olive oil has a slightly higher smoke point than olive oil but culinary experts still prefer to use olive oil for frying because the intense flavour of EVO might overwhelm that of the foodstuff being cooked, and the result might seem less crisp.

Beyond the table
Olive oil is a healthy, nutritious and tasty foodstuff, but it can also be an unexpected solution in applications that are quite distinct from its nutritional use.

  • Soften the skin: Mix 50ml of milk with the same amount of olive oil and use in bath water for smooth, soft skin. To exfoliate face and hands, rub olive oil into skin then use sugar and rough salt as a scrub, then rinse well.
  • Rejuvenate your hair: To treat split ends, mix an egg with a tablespoon of vinegar and two tablespoons of olive oil. Heat the mixture but be sure not to reach boiling point, then apply to split ends. Leave for an hour, then rinse. To add shine to hair, wash with a mixture of five tablespoons of olive oil and two eggs. Rinse well then wash hair with usual shampoo. To control frizz and static on damp days and in winter, just comb a little olive oil through dry hair.
  • Relax the body: Rubbing a little olive oil into skin on any part of the body before a massage helps muscles and nerves to relax.
  • Strengthening nails and softening cuticles: at bedtime, soak the nails in a mixture of warm olive oil and lemon. Rub in some oil then cover with a soft cloth to allow the oil to penetrate nails overnight.
  • Lip balm: Mix the olive oil with melted beeswax in equal amounts then add an essential oil for fragrance, and wave goodbye to dry, chapped lips.
  • Stop snoring: Use a drop of olive oil to lubricate vocal cords before going to bed and snoring may well decrease.
  • Removing make-up: Pat a little olive oil under eyes, cheeks and forehead, then wipe away with a damp cloth.
  • Treat earache: Prepare a cotton wool pad dipped in a little warm olive oil and carefully place in the outer ear to alleviate pain and irritation.
  • No more coughing: Swallow a small amount of olive oil to stop throat irritations that cause coughing.
  • Alleviating nappy rash: Gently wipe olive oil over baby’s bottom to relieve nappy rash.
  • Nourishing pet fur: After bathing, rub a small amount of olive oil into the fur of your pet cat or dog to nourish fur and add shine.
  • Polishing wood furniture: A teaspoon of olive oil and a soft cloth add shine to wood furniture. Add a little vinegar and citrus juice to increase cleaning properties and a fresh scent.
  • Releasing a stuck zip: Use a cotton wool pad to apply olive oil to the teeth of the zip then gently pull the tab downwards.
  • Polishing stainless steel and brass: Rub metal surfaces with a little olive oil on a clean cloth to prevent scratches and corrosion, and to add shine.
  • Removing paint from skin: Pour some olive oil on one hand and rub hands and arms. Leave the oil on the skin for five minutes, then rinse with soap and water.
  • Squeaking doors: Use a cloth or cotton wool pad to apply olive oil to the top of a squeaky house or car door hinge.
  • Shoe polish: Rub shoes with a tiny amount of olive oil to keep them shiny.
  • Cleaning garden tools: Spray a little olive oil on tools to stop dirt building up.


Sensory/organoleptic guide

Colour, fragrance, flavour: guide to learning how to recognize the characteristics that make extra-virgin olive oil such a unique product.

GOils made from pressed olives present naturally varied shades of colour, ranging from intense to pale green, golden reflections tending to yellow. This depends on a variety of factors, such as the cultivars and the place of origin, the ripeness of the drupes, or the type of extraction equipment used.

For all these reasons, the colour cannot be considered a factor that influences olive oil quality. Indeed, we know that when tasting, professionals use dark-coloured glasses to prevent the hue of the oil influencing their judgement.

The only case in which a colour variation points to actual lack of quality is when the oil has reddish tinges, because it indicates the oil has deteriorated. If exposed to heat or direct light, the chlorophyll naturally contained in extra-virgin olive oil decomposes, turning from green to brown and giving the oil a reddish colour, which accompanies sensory degradation.

Oil is usually bottled in dark green bottles to protect it from the light. Similarly, olive oil should be stored in cool, dry places.

Clarity and consistency
All extra-virgin olive oils are cloudy at origin because when just pressed they retain traces of humidity and pulp residue. Over time, excess moisture separates from the oil emulsion, settling on the bottom of the bottle and giving rise to typical sediment.

The sediment can be removed using a mechanical process that does not alter the characteristics of the oil. Filtration thus makes it possible to avoid oxidation and fermentation caused by contact with water, preserving the oil’s flavour and fragrance for a far longer time. That is why Pantaleo filters all its oils, with the exception of special selections for immediate consumption.

Several of our top EVOs – for instance Selezione Oro – are made from prized Italian oils and are simply left to settle, which keeps intact the aroma of the just-picked olives. For this reason these oils may have sediment on the bottom. In this case, we recommend consuming the EVO as quickly as possible.

If there happen to be solid curds inside the oil (they look like butterflies or very pale cotton wool) indicates that the liquid has been kept at a very low temperature and has frozen. This does not impact the quality of the oil in any way, and confirms that it is best kept “away from sources of heat”. Once back in a warm kitchen, the oil returns to its usual fluid consistency.

Each extra-virgin olive oil offers specific palate and nose sensations that are key to its character. These sensations overall create the flavour of the foodstuff. To assess the flavour of an oil, there is a two-step assay: direct nasal assay, to memorize aromas, and the palate/after aroma analysis, to memorize taste and fragrance sensations.

To identify positive and negative characteristics conveyed by a particular flavour, the science of assay uses specific vocabulary. The term fruity identifies a flavour reminiscent of the scent and taste of fresh, healthy olive. This will range from light to intense, depending when the olive was picked.

Bitterness and pungency – a pleasing hint of prickling in the throat – is typical of top-quality oils, made from just-ripe green olives, picked and pressed within a few hours of leaving the tree. As olives ripen, these traits fade and the oils they are used to produce will be less fruity, pungent and bitter. It should be borne in mind that oil is a natural product and its characteristics will differ from year to year, or even within the same year. Moreover, oil kept in a bottle will become milder as time passes. All these factors mean that two bottles of the same oil will have different nuances of taste without this leading to loss of the sensory features.

Fruitiness, bitterness and pungency come from the polyphenols naturally present in extra-virgin olive oil, which are antioxidants that provide powerful protection for our bodies. This is another reason why they are the main sensations listed among the positive characteristics in the sensory evaluation of an extra-virgin olive oil, but there are also others.

Sweetness is the taste of an oil made with fully ripe olives, Almond is the pleasing aftertaste that recalls fresh or bitter almonds. Grassy is the nose note typical of freshly-cut grass. Floral is the nose note typical of the scent of flowers. Artichoke is a flavour that recalls a raw artichoke heart. Tomato leaf is the nose note that recalls tomato leaves.

To identify the negative traits of an oil, a number of specific descriptors are used.

Fusty is the term that describes a flavour deriving from olives that have been heaped up and have fermented; Musty is the term that describes the flavour typical of an oil made from olives left in heaps for several days in damp storage. Muddy is the flavour typical of an oil that has come into contact with the vegetation liquid generated during pressing. Winey-acetic is the flavour reminiscent of wine and vinegar, caused by fermentation of olive paste during pressing, especially in traditional oil mills. Rancid is the flavour shared by all fats in prolonged contact with the air, and which is normally accompanied by a reddish-orange tinge. Cucumber is the flavour deriving from too much time spent sealed in tins. Cooked or overcooked is the typical flavour of oil that has suffered excessive or prolonged heating during milling. Earthy indicates an oil made from fallen or muddy, unwashed olives.

Reading the label

How to recognize the right information for pinpointing the best products on the market.

Requisiti di un buon olio extravergine
In generale, nella scelta di un olio extravergine, bisogna tenere presente che un prezzo eccessivamente basso potrebbe essere un primo indice di scarsa qualità. Un olio extra vergine di oliva deve soddisfare per legge determinati requisiti qualitativi. Dunque, l’etichetta deve sempre riportare la dicitura “olio extra vergine di oliva”, la ragione sociale e tutti i dati del produttore. Deve inoltre indicare il lotto di produzione e la data di scadenza.

Un’etichetta che presenti informazioni relative all’origine degli oliveti, alla raccolta dei frutti e ai processi di estrazione dell’olio può rappresentare un’ulteriore garanzia. Ma non necessariamente tali informazioni attestano requisiti di tipo qualitativo. Per questo è importante saper leggere l’etichetta e individuare i parametri davvero utili per accertare la qualità dell’olio.

Ecco alcune tra le diciture più comuni relative alle origini di un olio:

  • “100% italiano” o “prodotto italiano”: Specifica che l’olio è ottenuto solo da olive coltivate e trasformate nel nostro Paese.
  • “Miscela di oli di oliva originari dell’Unione Europea”: Specifica che l’olio è una miscela di oli extravergini estratti in uno o più paesi dell’Unione Europea (Italia, Grecia, Spagna, Portogallo).
  • “Miscela di oli di oliva originari dell’Unione Europea e non originari dell’Unione Europea”: specifica che l’olio è una miscela di oli extravergini estratti in uno o più paesi dell’Unione Europea (Italia, Grecia, Spagna, Portogallo) e di oli estratti in paesi non facenti parte dell’Unione Europea (Tunisia, Turchia, Marocco, ecc).
  • “Miscela di oli di oliva non originari dell’Unione Europea”: specifica che l’olio è una miscela di oli extravergini estratti in uno o più paesi non facenti parte dell’Unione Europea (Tunisia, Turchia, Marocco, ecc).
  • “Denominazione di Origine Protetta D.O.P.” o “Indicazione Geografica Protetta I.G.P.”: queste diciture, accompagnate dal nome di un’area geografica delimitata o di un’intera regione, indicano che le particolari qualità dell’olio dipendono dalla sua produzione in quel determinato luogo (dalla coltivazione delle olive alla loro trasformazione).

Olio italiano o non italiano?
Fornire informazioni relative all’origine di un olio non significa accertarne la qualità. Un olio prodotto interamente in Italia non è necessariamente migliore di una miscela di oli comunitari o non comunitari.

È vero che in alcune zone della Puglia, della Sicilia, dell’Umbria o della Toscana la presenza di particolari cultivar autoctone, di condizioni ambientali e di microclimi particolari determina la produzione di un ottimo olio extra vergine. Ma è altrettanto vero che, nelle stesse zone - ove non vengano rispettate tutte le regole necessarie per ottenere un olio di qualità - si producono oli con difetti più o meno intensi.

Di media solo il 30-40% degli oli prodotti in Italia possono essere definiti di buona qualità o esenti da difetti. Di contro, ovunque nel mondo vengano rispettate le procedure corrette - coltivazioni razionali, raccolta delle olive al giusto grado di maturazione, stoccaggio delle olive in luoghi areati, estrazione dell’olio nel giro di poche ore dalla raccolta e tramite impianti tecnologicamente avanzati, corretto stoccaggio dell’olio in serbatoi igienici e a temperatura controllata - si otterrà un ottimo olio extra vergine.

L’origine geografica di un olio non è quindi una garanzia di qualità. Non a caso la dicitura “100% italiano” può essere applicata anche a oli semplicemente "vergini", ovvero qualitativamente inferiori all'extravergine. Citare con enfasi l’italianità dell’olio, di fatto, non fornisce nessuna garanzia.

Processi di Spremitura/Estrazione
La dicitura “olio di prima spremitura” non è in alcun modo indicativa della qualità dell’olio. Oggi tutti gli oli extra vergini derivano da una prima e unica spremitura, effettuata tramite pressa idraulica o per centrifugazione (in questo secondo caso non si parla di spremitura ma di estrazione).

Seppur vivo nell’immaginario collettivo, quello della “prima spremitura” è un concetto ormai anacronistico: fa riferimento a un’epoca in cui i macchinari erano azionati da forza umana o animale, e avevano bisogno di due o tre pressature per estrarre tutto l’olio presente nelle olive.

L’estrazione tradizionale a pressa è peraltro un sistema che presenta notevoli svantaggi rispetto alla centrifugazione: richiede molta più manodopera, impone una gestione degli aspetti igienico-sanitari più complessa, non è facilmente monitorabile con strumenti tecnologici all’avanguardia.

Inoltre, i diaframmi utilizzati nei processi di filtraggio durante la spremitura (“fistoli”) si deteriorano rapidamente, col risultato di trasmettere eventuali connotati negativi alle partite di olio che seguono quella difettosa.

Gli impianti di molitura/estrazione “continui” - ovvero, quelli che fanno uso dei processi di centrifugazione - sono oggi i più moderni e diffusi, e garantiscono un olio di qualità sicuramente superiore.

Neanche l’espressione “spremuto/estratto a freddo” certifica la qualità dell’olio extravergine. In effetti, tale indicazione è pleonastica: ormai tutti gli oli extra vergine di oliva sono ottenuti con sistemi di spremitura o estrazione “a freddo”, ossia tramite processi in cui non si raggiungono temperature superiori ai 27 °C.

Alcuni parametri oggettivi sui quali è effettivamente possibile misurare la qualità dell’olio sono il grado di acidità e le caratteristiche organolettiche. La percentuale di acidità di un olio corrisponde alla quantità di acidi grassi liberi presenti nell’olio stesso, e indica la maggiore o minore degradazione delle olive: tanto minore l’acidità, dunque, tanto più le olive si saranno mantenute in buono stato.

L'acidità dell'olio, tuttavia, non è una caratteristica percepibile al gusto, e può essere misurata solo a seguito di un'analisi chimica. Pertanto, le diciture generiche come “bassa acidità” non forniscono di per sé nessuna informazione utile. L’indicazione del grado di acidità dell’olio ha senso solo se associata a valori analitici e organolettici.

Lotto di produzione
Ecco come interpretare le informazioni relative al lotto di produzione sulle nostre etichette:

  • In alto compare la data di preferibile consumo (ad esempio “24/09/2017”).
  • I successivi tre caratteri alfanumerici (ad esempio “K01”) indicano il codice di lotto dell’olio sfuso, conservato in cisterna prima dell’imbottigliamento, tramite il quale è possibile risalire a tutte le informazioni relative a una particolare partita
  • I due numeri che seguono (ad esempio “17”) indicano le ultime due cifre dell’anno di produzione
  • I tre numeri che seguono (ad esempio “083”), indicano il giorno dell’anno in cui la bottiglia è stata confezionata. Saranno dunque compresi tra “001” e “365” o “366” (a seconda che l’anno sia bisestile o meno), dove “001” corrisponderà a “1 gennaio” e “365” a “31 dicembre”

Nel caso di segnalazioni, il codice del lotto di produzione ci consente di risalire all’operatore che ha confezionato la bottiglia in questione, ai controlli effettuati e ai materiali utilizzati per e durante la produzione, identificando l’olio in maniera assolutamente certa.

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How is olive oil made? A thousand and one uses for olive oil Sensory/organoleptic guide Reading the label
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