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Extra virgin olive oil (Recipe: aioli with steamed asparagus) {vegetarian, gluten-free}


Do you remember when you lost your virginity?


How about when you lost your extra virginity?

Um.... er.... extra virginity???

Yep. I remember the day I lost mine.

In the kitchen where I grew up, the oil of choice wasn't extra virgin or virgin. It wasn't even olive oil. We cooked with vegetable oil. Or butter. Or chicken fat. Honestly, I'd never heard of extra virgin olive oil until I tuned in to Julia Child on PBS after we moved to Boston in the late 1970s.

Enamored of Julia's easy style and confidence, I set out to try one of her recipes, and this required purchasing some extra virgin olive oil. I went to Boston's North End, the traditionally Italian part of town; in the market (Joe Pace's, for those who remember the neighborhood before the Big Dig), I found myself facing an entire aisle of olive oil! There were dozens of virgins and extra virgins. Some were neither; perhaps they were more experienced than virgins? Some were green, some golden, some almost clear, and some "light."

Intimidated and overwhelmed, I grabbed a bottle with a pretty label and a low price tag, and put on a brave face as I stood in line at the check-out. Then, I fled. And that, my friends, was how I lost my extra virginity.

Nobody should have to face the olive oil aisle alone, so here's my cheat sheet, collected from various sources including the International Olive Oil Council:

  • Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the fruit of the olive tree, using solely mechanical or other physical means in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It has not undergone any treatment other than washing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. It must have less than 1% acidity. Most expensive; best for salads and drizzling on finished dishes.
  • Virgin olive oil, made in the same way as extra virgin, has an acidity less than 2%, and has a good taste. There can be no refined oil in virgin olive oil. Good for cooking, and fine for salad dressings, in a pinch.
  • Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined virgin oil, containing at most 1% acidity. Mild flavor; for cooking only.
  • Refined olive oil, also called pure oil, is a lesser grade than virgin. No real good use for this.

I wouldn't think of being without EVOO (yes, I abbreviate it on paper, though I never ever say "e-v-o-o" out loud) any more than I'd let my pantry run out of salt, or onions. I keep several kinds of olive oil on hand, not because I'm an oil snob, but because I don't want to cook with EVOO (which has a low smoke point of 375°F) when cooking with regular blended olive oil (438°F) tastes better and is more economical. For deep frying, I prefer peanut oil (450°F) or rice bran oil (490°F).

One extra virgin does not fit all, so purchase oil in small quantities — buy the best you can afford — and taste several to find your favorites. Some are fruity, some are peppery, some are grassy, and some are good enough to drink right from the bottle. You can find extra virgin olive oils from California, Spain, South Africa, Mozambique, New Zealand and Turkey at Zingerman's, or treat yourself to a lovely sampler box of small-producer artisan oils from Alejandro & Martin.

And once you've lost your extra virginity, you'll be able to whip up the most amazing gremolata potatoes, chicken salad with oranges and olives, rosemary-sage bread, ginger-spiced gobi paratha, three-cheese pizza, and your very own signature vinaigrette.

Aioli with steamed asparagus

Every summer, The #1 Cooking Group celebrates with a Grand Aioli. What’s a Grand Aioli? Nothing more than a giant potluck, really. In Provence, whole towns come together to celebrate the various saints of the villages; a grand aioli might also be served in winter, for Christmas Eve or New Year’s. Aioli (from the words ail – garlic – and oli, the Provencal word for oil) is both the sauce, and the celebration. Traditionally, the women make the aioli sauce while the men prepare the rest of the feast. Fishermen bring their catch; farmers might contribute potatoes and vegetables, lamb and chicken. The village baker would bring some baguettes. The point is to use locally available products, and add whatever you enjoy. The aioli itself — really a garlic mayonnaise — is the key, and its success depends on the very best olive oil.


For the aioli:
1 head garlic, cloves separated, peeled and slightly crushed
2 egg yolks (at room temperature)
pinch coarse sea salt
2 cups extra virgin olive oil (at room temperature)
1-2 teaspoons water


In a marble mortar with a heavy pestle, pound the garlic and salt together into a paste. Add egg yolks and stir until they are light in color.

Slowly, drop by drop, begin to incorporate the olive oil, turning the pestle constantly. As the mixture begins to thicken, add the oil a little faster, always turning the pestle.

When it is quite thick (this could take up to 45 minutes!), add the water to loosen it. Continue mixing until the oil is completely mixed in. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

WHILE THE AIOLI IS CHILLING, MAKE THE ASPARAGUS: Trim 2 lbs of asparagus spears; if the stalks are thick, peel them with a vegetable peeler. In a large saucepan, bring 1/2 inch of water to a boil. Add a good sprinkling of salt, and the asparagus. Cover, and cook for 2 minutes. Immediately remove the asparagus and plunge them into a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Then, drain and dry the asparagus, and set out on a platter with the aioli sauce in a bowl for dipping.

Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.


Ahhh--now you were in a place where your first time was the way it should be. Like you, our family was affected by Julia. But, we lived in a small rural town in Illinois. They didn't have a vast array of olive oil. Instead, there were a few bottles stashed in the most inconspicuous place. I can't say that I fell in love with the taste. i was young and thought it tasted "funny". But, after a few years that all changed. Now I love olive oil. Lovely post!!!!!

uhh- I may be in the process of slowly losing my extra virginity. I do love the Zingerman catalog and all of their descriptions- it is a whole world!

It's always good to have some extra virginity. You never know when it will come in handy.

Thank you for the link, Lydia.

And the reminder that I am running short of — dare I write it — EVOO.

Well done. Sometimes it helps to be reminded of what extra virgin is and isn't. And the smoking points of the different oil can have such an incrdible effect on cooking different foods and the technique we use to cook them.

My mother kept a small bottle of olive oil - for years. She used it to treat ear-aches and polish Easter Eggs. I didn't know it was for eating until 'Julia' told me.
Now, I buy it like the Spaniards, in 5 litre bottles...and yes, I use it fast enough....

Thanks for the rice bran oil tip, I didn't know that it had such a high smoking point. I'm wondering, how's the flavor?

I'm moving (back) to Ann Arbor in May and part of our house hunt includes trying to find a nice enough affordable place close to Zingerman's and the other food shops in that neighborhood. I will not admit that to just anybody, but I feel safe declaring it to the people who read and write food blogs.

Lydia, I didn't start using EVOO until coming to Australia. And now I have several types of olive oil and other (corn oil & sesame oil) in my pantry like you.

And what is better than dipping freshly baked bread in a good quality EVOO? I can really live on that.

Sher, I'm really coming to appreciate the subtle differences between olive oils from different countries and different producers, but it's taken years to get over my first experience shopping for it. I would probably have liked fewer choices, back then....

Callipygia, I'm addicted to the Zingerman's catalog. It's like reading an encyclopedia -- so much good information.

Mimi, I agree. I'll take all the extra virginity I can get.

Tanna, as I learn more about smoke points, I think I'm able to make better choices about how I cook. There are better (i.e., healthier) ways than splashing extra virgin olive oil on and in everything.

Katie, occasionally I see a good deal on the 5-liter bottles, often from Spain. I didn't know about using it for Easter eggs!

Mary, the rice bran oil is quite neutral in flavor, like canola oil. They are so proud of the smoke point that it's actually printed on the label. Lucky you, to be moving near Zingerman's. I'll remember that if I ever get to Ann Arbor.....!

Anh, dipping good bread in good olive oil is absolutely heavenly.

Understanding olive oil is almost like learning about wine, isn't it? I have found that when I spend the extra money for a very special olive oil, it is well worth the price.

Great post! (While traveling in Spain, we sampled ice-cream made from olive oil. It was rich, creamy, smooth, totally decadent, and could easily give Ben & Jerry a run for their money!)

I flat out love extra virgin olive oil! Sometimes, just drizzling it over my bread is just enough to make me happy:)

I should try your aioli recipe soon!:)

Lydia, oh you so witty =)
I usually keep a few different e.v. olive oil, some fruity some assertive.

I started using extra virgin olive oil - actually, virgin olive oil - a few years ago. And now I don't picture my pantry without it, Lydia.
Pretty addictive this thing. :D

We love EVOO and even eat it on popcorn and substitute for butter (1/2 applesauce and 1/2 olive oil) in many recipes such as cornbread. Years ago, I brought back extra virgin olive oil from Crete -- in emptied black one-gallon containers that were always unwrapped, opened and sniffed at customs.I wonder if that would be possible now ? The Cretan olive oil was green, sweet and fruity. The Alejandro & Martin Greek olive oil is the closest I've ever tasted and well worth the price.

Yes, a great olive oil makes a difference. We tried making vinaigrette from a cheap one and a good quality one....a world of difference. I get mine from Formaggio's Kitchen...the Buraschi brand...it is awesome.

TW, I agree completely. I don't mean to sound like an oil snob, really I don't, but there is such a difference between ordinary and extraordinary olive oil. I hosted an olive oil tasting here last winter, with 10 different oils. We placed a bit of each in a white spoon, and instantly you could see the differences in color and viscosity. And the tastes? So completely nuanced. It was a great experiment and one worth trying at home.

Kathy, I've heard of olive oil ice cream but never have tasted it. Sounds luscious!

Valentina, Gattina, Patricia: yes yes yes, I cannot imagine life without EVOO either.

Mary, would love to try passing through customs these days with an unmarked jug of olive oil! I can only imagine how wonderful that oil tasted.

Veron, again not to be an oil snob, but once you realize the difference, it's hard to go back to using ordinary oil. When you're cooking, that's a different thing, but in salads or drizzled on bread, the oil has to be great to make the dish sing. I don't think I've had Buraschi, but I live near a Formaggio, so I will try it.

Link, I do love to shake things up from time to time!!! I cannot imagine how wonderful it would be to live in Tuscany, or California, and produce your own oil. And it's hard to argue with a man who lives to be 100 by consuming his own first press oil.

Haha, I love your intro! As a matter of fact, I do remember when I lost my extra-virginity, since it was quite late, less than 10 years ago, ie, when I had to cook my own food.

I do have this spiky bowl-like contraption for manually reducing garlic to a pulp that I bought from Provence 3 years ago. Very effective, but those spikes also penetrate skin, and that kinda hurts with garlic juice and all...

I'm not sure if Pierre Hermé the genious pastry chef is famous in the US, but I had the opportunity of paying his store a visit once and got to taste his olive oil & vanilla bean macarons. Pure heaven!

I have a special bottle of olive oil that I brought home from Italy...You can always find a bottle of wine. Good E.V.Oh.Oh is hard to come by.
Almost time for another trip!

Shilpa, we have heard of Pierre Hermé, though he is not as universally known here. Those olive oil and vanilla macarons sound absolutely amazing. Have you tried to make them?

Sandi, I love that in every small town in Italy, in every trattoria, there's a bottle of local olive oil on the table -- and what we get imported here never tastes quite the same. There are wonderful artisan EVOOs coming into the US now. But it's such fun to go to Italy and find the most fresh products.

Hi Lydia, I know how to make macarons, and the thought of making them with olive oil merely crossed my mind, just am not sure how to make a firm ganache that can still bring out the olive oil flavour. PH added a slice of green olive to his ganache, but have no idea what the rest was made of! grrr..

I was wondering...
If a recipe for green onion cakes says to use sesame oil... can u just use olive oil instead?? is there a specific reason to use sesame oil or do u think using the olive oil shouldnt make too big of a difference??

I always have this question when cooking.... if they say to use one oil... but i have another... is it ever a big deal if u use a diff oil??

Shilpa, green olive and ganache...I'm trying to roll that taste around in my mind.

Kaneeshia, welcome to The Perfect Pantry. In the case of sesame oil, it definitely does make a difference to substitute -- sesame oil adds a toasted, slightly smoky flavor, while olive oil, if it's good olive oil, will add a fruity flavor. Completely different. The only time I've used sesame oil as the primary cooking oil is when I make scallion pancakes. You can substitute other cooking oils (vegetable, canola, grapeseed, etc.) for olive oil, with little loss of quality.

Great choice. You have picked at a very low price (amazingly low) one of the best olive oils made in Spain. -Far better- than gourmet oils (some snobs call them Grand Crus) that cost five times more.

"Flor de Aceite" (Flower of the Oil) is a descriptive name, it means that it does not come from pressed olives, unlike 99'99% of the olive oil available (ok, I made up that figure). When the olive oils are grinded (not pressed yet) they release this juice called flower of the oil, the first and most delicate, only a small quantity can be collected this way.

Very few companies in the world collect and sell this first juice. The ordinary process is to press and centrifuge the mash of olives obtained after being grinded, to produce the olive oil that sometimes is filtered afterwards. "Flor de aceite" is unfiltered.

In a nutshell, with Prado's Flower of the Oil you have lost your Extra-Extra virginity: the closest thing to immaculate conception. Like a ..., touched for the very first time.

The most virgin, pure, of olive oils.

Soft, round, voluptuous, orange and menthol. Narcotic to me.

I don't work for these people, I'm simply mad about this oil.

Their American website,

Benjamin Munoz

Benjamin, what a lovely ode to olive oil! I'm quite partial to this producer, too -- and I don't work for them, either. Thanks for visiting The Perfect Pantry.

Hi Lydia!!
Nice site!!
It's the first site I visit it.
I am from Catalunya, North-east area of Spain, exactly from Barcelona City and here EVOO is more expensive than other areas of Spain(well, almost everything is expensive in Barcelona XDXD).But I see people is used to cook with Virgin Olive Oil.Most people use only the expensive one for salads.
But I've always used EVOO, because my mother family are from a country area in "Castilla la Mancha". You know, where Cervantes' Don Quixote story is placed in.
My grandmother has some olive trees,so every summer when she comes back to Barcelona, she carries with her lot of bottles of first cold press EVOO.I am so used to it, I cannot enjoy tasting other oil.I mean I found them too much sweet, I need that exact acid touch.For me it is as basic as water.

About that garlic mayonnaise, here in catalunya, we call it All-i-Oli. Exact traduction would be, Garlic and Oil.It is very used here,too.
In the rest of Spain I think it isn't very used.But here in Catalunya it is regional "recipe".
Well, to be totally true, the real real, Alli-i-Oli it's even hardest to prepare because the original it's done without egg.Only garlic and Oil.I can hand make AlliOli with egg in 20 minutes to 4 people.But the original one it is toughest for me..haha...I have never tried it.
A small trick we know it's to turn it in the same direction.Sometimes if you change the direction the mix "breaks". I am sorry I don't know its English technical name.I mean it losses its body, and begin to turn like liquid, not everytime more hard.
but if that happens you can solve it adding another egg to the mix and turning it, adding some oil,turning it until it is hard enough.

Thanks for this site Lydia.It is full of knowledge.I've found it searching for Sushi recipes.
I am thinkin of buying the book you recommended.

Thanks, again ;)

Tina from Catalunya.

Tina, welcome to The Perfect Pantry -- I'm so glad you visited today! You are fortunate to have your grandmother's olive oil -- I cannot imagine how wonderful it must taste! I have never tried to make the allioli, though I have had it in Spanish restaurants. And I didn't know that you have to keep mixing in the same direction or the sauce will break (yes, that is how you say it in English, "break"). When we make the aioli sauce, it takes quite a long time, at least 45 minutes or longer. I think that without the eggs to help emulsify the sauce, it might take even longer? I have learned so much from your comment. Thank you.

Hi Lydia,
yesterday, I ask my mum how long it takes her to make AlliOli.She told me 10 minutes, never more than that.Wow!!! My mum is really fast!! Hahaha...I am learning a lot from her, she is really good at cooking.

Thanks for this site.It is bookmarked now.;)

Tina, your mother needs to come and teach us her 10-minute technique!!!

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