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Tuesday, June 26, 2007


As of late, I've been obsessed with the burn on the back of my throat when eating olive oil on various dishes I've prepared. At times, I think it's in my head, an imaginary pungency. How could the benign olive create an oil that has heat? I ask myself.

At the dinner table, I pose this question to my family, "Do you feel it?"

"Feel what?" my husband and daughter blandly respond.

"The burn. The bite. The fire," I press on.

"Nope, don't feel it," they say in unison.

I take another bite of olive-oil drenched veggies, then start to cough and sputter all alone at the end of the table. No one else is having this reaction.

When we reach this type of crossroads--the "food analysis" juncture--I realize that I'm often alone. Though my husband does love food, he inhales it so quickly that there's no time for savoring the subtleties of an ingredient or complexities of a dish: my main objective when eating. I love to hash over the culinary details, talk about the nuances of flavor--even try to uncover the reasons why olive oil has heat.

Thankfully, I sometimes get my answers from Harold McGee, the food writer and kitchen chemist.

For months now I've been on a search for a smooth olive oil. I've bought bottle after bottle, thinking that the next one will be cool like custard. But then, I continue to cough when the pungency reaches the back of my throat.

So why does this happen?

According to Harold McGee's recent blog posting on June 22nd, the culprit is oleocanthal, a phenolic compound. This cough-inducing chemical is supposed to provide a balance to the fruity flavor in the oil. But for me, it's too strong.

What I've discovered after buying numerous brands and spending lots of money, is that hands down, Paul Newman's organic olive oil is the winner. Smooth, and not pungent. Perhaps it's just a personal preference, but if Mr. Newman's brand keeps me from coughing while I'm trying to enjoy a meal, hey, that's good enough for me.

But Harold...I have a question for you? Why do some people feel the heat and others don't? Perhaps we'll get to the bottom of this burning inquiry at another time...

Harold McGee's blog posting on olive oil pungency and bitterness



Blogger Rebecca said...

Wow, I am the only one in my family who feels it too. Kyra and I can devour an entire loaf of rustic bread and olive oil in a sitting and yet after a couple on dips I think someone has secretly added pepper to the oil. I still eat and dip though!

6:54 PM


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