I tend to be a purist when it comes to olive oil. My purism stems from my Italian background where there’s always a preference for fresh ingredients. The original purpose of flavored olive oils in Italy was to preserve ingredients that were out of season, for example: preserving peppers, tomatoes or mushrooms. In fact, the ingredients by season define the cooking style and the types of infused or flavored oils that are prepared and used. They make simple purees from herbs and olive oil and strain out the solids to keep the oils’ taste fresher. Flavored oils capture and preserve the aroma and flavor of an herb at its peak.
However, within Italian homes or when an Italian chef thinks of “flavor” in extra virgin olive oil, it is usually the “flavor” of the oil from that particular region or province. I asked three Italian chefs for their perspective on the use of flavored olive oils:
Massimiliano Benucci, the chef of Olio & Convivium in Florence, prefers to use extra virgin olive oil to flavored oils; “ … we have maybe the best extra virgin olive oil selections in the city. This gives us the chance to use the different Tuscan extra virgin olive oils flavor as they are without adding anything else.” There is always a preference for fresh ingredients, “For example, to prepare a simple fresh tomato and peperoncino bruschetta, you can finish it with a garlic or a peperoncino flavored olive oil. I prefer to use young garlic or fresh peperoncino finely chopped and finish the bruschetta with Tuscan extra virgin olive oil.”
Pasquale Aiello, private chef in Panicale concurs: “Personally, I’m not a big fan of flavored olive oil, because any external ingredient could modify the delicate balance and taste of a good olive oil.”
Rosanna Urbinati, chef at Villa Gioianna offered suggestions on how to make peperoncino and garlic olive oil at home. “For peperoncino olive oil, slice small, strong red chilies in thin slices and pack in a clean glass jar. Add olive oil to cover. Sprinkle drops — only drops, it’s strong! — of this pungent flavored oil over a plate of ragu or to sauté shrimp or other crustaceans. Don’t use the peperoncino, just the oil, and replace the oil as it’s used up to make sure the chilies stay covered. For garlic oil, crush a few cloves of garlic and cover with olive oil. Fantastic when used to baste grilled fish or zucchini.”