Ever wonder what makes an olive oil “extra-virgin,” or what makes a cut of beef “prime”? As foodies know, the quality of ingredients makes a big difference in how a dish tastes, and these words have very specific meanings in regards to the items they’re describing. Let’s take a walk around the supermarket to investigate why certain foods come with their own designated adjectives, and learn what the descriptors mean.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
With olive oil, the name describes the production process — any oil that’s obtained from the fruit of olive trees is an olive oil, but what differentiates an “extra-virgin” olive oil from “virgin” olive oil, or just regular olive oil, is that extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined, meaning it hasn’t been processed with chemicals or heat. An unrefined extra-virgin olive oil will retain high levels of oleic acid, which is what gives the oil its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, along with the rich golden color and distinctive peppery flavor.
“Prime,” as a descriptor for beef, comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are eight grades of beef given by the regulatory agency, with the top three — “prime,” “choice,” and “select” — likely the most recognizable to American grocery shoppers. “Prime” beef is the highest quality in terms of tenderness, juiciness, and flavor, and the grade is assigned based on a combination of marbling and maturity of the cow. “Marbling” describes the flecks of fat within the meat that give it flavor and tenderness.
If a recipe calls for “large” eggs, that’s not a guesstimate — it refers to a specific size designation of egg. Eggs are classified in a range of sizes, “peewee” to “jumbo.” These size variations all have to do with the chicken laying the egg. In general, the older the chicken, the larger the egg, but chickens can lay eggs from about 18 weeks old, albeit very infrequently. Peewee eggs come from extremely young chickens, whereas jumbo eggs come from fully mature, healthy chickens in their prime. An egg is “jumbo” if it weighs 2.5 ounces or more. Other factors that can impact the size of an egg are the weight of the chicken, its diet, and the conditions the chicken lives in — for example, hens exposed to more light before 19 weeks of age will start laying eggs earlier, meaning their eggs will be smaller. “Large” eggs are what most recipes call for, and “large” and “extra-large” eggs are stocked most commonly at grocery stores.
What makes a cream “heavy,” as opposed to just cream? It has to do with fat content. Heavy cream is homogenized, meaning that the fat it contains is emulsified and mixed well into the milk, giving it a thick consistency. Manufacturers add specific proportions of milk fat to the milk, and a “heavy” cream contains no less than 36% milk fat.
Kosher salt is not required for adherence to Jewish culinary standards, but the seasoning got its name because the large size of the salt crystals draws moisture out of meat faster. This does help with koshering meat, the Jewish process of preparing meat for consumption. Kosher salt has grown popular in culinary circles because it is standardized and reliable. Unlike table salt, which contains iodine to make it easier to pour, the large grain of kosher salt makes it easier to manipulate by hand when cooking, which decreases the chance of oversalting the food.
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