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Dipping bread in olive oil

My mom is in Italy right now and she emailed me with a question for all of you. (Of course, if she has internet access she could do it herself, but that wouldn't occur to her.) She'd like to know where and when the practice of dipping bread in olive oil started. It's very common in California but she hasn't seen it at all in Italy. (She's in the North.) She gets bread before a meal and also little bottles of olive oil and vinegar with the salad, but that's it. Does anyone know?

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  1. I did not see this practice in Italy either (Rome/Tuscany) but was surprised when I went to Spain this past summer that Catalans sometimes do it (Barcelona). On a few occasions, we were given warm, fresh bread, a little dish of Catalan olive oil to dip in and some sea salt to sprinkle over the bread. Divine!

    1. This is very American, not at all common practice in Italy. If you happen to take in an olive oil festival you can sample and dip all you want.

      1. I believe this started in America, and in particular California.

        I think the thinking behind it was driven partly by the large olive, and olive oil, industry in CA, coupled with the popularity of olive oil as being a "good fat". And dipping bread in nice flavorful olive oil was a quick and simple way to get these heart healthy good fats without actually having to cook up a full meal, or to toss a salad.

        But who knows, I could be completely wrong and this practice could date as far back as Caesar himself.

        5 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          Whoever it was that started it has my eternal gratitude. A good olive oil is a great accompaniment to a good bread, healthier than butter (assuming equal amounts are used - I think people tend to go overboard on the oil), and never frozen into a stiff block of bread-crumbling matter.

          Still like butter, of course - I just can't get myself to pour olive oil on a stack of pancakes. :)

          1. re: Striver

            Absolutely agree especially with a good extra virgin olive oil where an ordinary bread is just a good vehicle for the delicious olive oil!

            1. re: Striver

              Actually, if equal amounts of butter or oil are used, you consume 20% more calories with oil than butter (oil has 120 cals per Tbs, butter 100). If you have an issue with cholesterol, then oil may be healthier for you, but that's a minority of people. And people do tend to use more oil than butter in my experience.

              1. re: Karl S

                I think the important issue here is in cholesterol and saturated vs unsaturated fat (the latter posing less of a health risk, though overconsumption is always an issue).

                Not being derived from animal sources, olive oil doesn't have any appreciable amounts of cholesterol, and it also contains much less saturated fat than butter.

                1. re: Bryson

                  There has been a lot of debate regarding the real health impact of cholesterol and saturated vs unsaturated fat which is off-topic but the prevailing "wisdom" of the 80s and 90s is still in question.

          2. My family had restaurants with Marcella Hazan and she wouldn't allow a dipping oil at the table - only butter. Nor would she allow a twist of lemon with espresso.

            8 Replies
              1. re: MMRuth

                She owned less than the publicist made it seem, but yes, she was a partner in two. And her son was the chef at one for a while, which was funny, cause he so obviously was not a restaurant chef.

                1. re: almansa

                  Interesting - where were the restaurants?

                    1. re: almansa

                      MiPiaci used to ROCK back in those days!

              2. re: almansa

                Yeah, lots of purists won't allow a twist of lemon with an espresso. The lemon is supposed to help with bitterness issues, therefore any place that offers a twist of lemon is, in effect, admitting that their espresso might be bitter, which it should never be. Kind of along the lines of a place I worked at in New York that instructed us NOT to ask how the meals are because that would be admitting that something might be wrong with the food.

                1. re: hilltowner

                  I ordered an espresso (doble) after dinner last week for the first time in years. It came with a twist on the side and two sugar cubes. I ate the twist by itself, don't think it belongs with good strong espresso, and toward the end I put a cube in there, which was tasty but I felt guilty about doing it. I love a good strong arse-kicking espresso, and all those things that are meant to mellow it don't do it justice. Except the sugar cube, but like I said, I felt like a sellout. may have to try that at home.

                  1. re: hilltowner

                    i just thought the lemon rind twist was a regional thing (like the amalfi coast or sicilian).

                2. That's funny because I went on two tours this past spring in Tuscany, one a cooking tour and one a bike tour, both stopped at small wineries where they produced their own wines and olive oil and we tasted wine and locally made olive oil and the tour guides had bought bread to dip and taste the olive oil with.

                  2 Replies
                    1. re: bakerboyz

                      They don't expect you to drink a glass of olive oil, so they provided a more suitable vehicle for tasting it.

                    2. Sorry to sound snobby, I can't stand the term "dipping oil," it's like "ice cream topping."

                      Unless the bread and oil are really delicious and worth it, remember that each dip of oil on bread can approach 100 calories. If you are ever at a Carrabas, watch the people around you snarfing down oil and bread, it will gross you out.

                      13 Replies
                      1. re: superluckycat

                        Actually I have to agree too, Just like the "coating chocolate" on soft-serve ice-cream, which we know is wax and colouring, and the "butter topping" on popcorn, which can be a concoction of chemicals and Franken-oil. "Dipping oil" doesn't sound very appetizing to me ;-)

                        On the other hand, I smear instead of dip my bread in the olive oil, just a touch of it at the rim of each bite-size morsel. It's just like how would I sip, not gulp down, the wine.

                        1. re: superluckycat

                          So is bread and butter any healthier? Of course not. The thing at Carrabas that interests me is the sodium content of that herb mix....A salt-a-holic's dream

                          1. re: BiscuitBoy

                            carrabbas spice mix for dipping: http://www.recipezaar.com/53876 is delicious and addictive. other diners enjoying it does not gross me out. i'm busy with my dining companions, and dipping my bread!

                            carrabbas also uses good spanish olive oil, the borges brand (sold in grocery stores as "star" brand.


                            as you can all see, the spice mix is NOT a salt-a-holics dream -- and darned tasty.

                            thus, i stand on the side of dipping oil, and, fwiw, ice cream topping (dove's is quite nice).

                            1. re: alkapal

                              Ahh....And we all know how honest chains are in reporting stuff like that, nevermind hearing it second hand. 1/2 tsp kosher salt is not excessive?

                              1. re: BiscuitBoy

                                i've made the recipe. the proportions are correct. it is to be noted that the recipe makes a large amount of mix, 1/4 cup -- it recommends you use 1 1/2 teaspoons of the mix to 4 tablespoons olive oil. i use more olive oil, as the spices are potent.

                              2. re: alkapal

                                I like the Carrabba's spice mix for dipping very much. I have given it as Christmas gifts, with a nice bottle of olive oil. I agree that the salt in the recipe is not excessive, you only use a tblspoon of the spice mix with the oil.

                                1. re: jeanmarieok

                                  jeanmarieok, do you use fresh herbs where indicated, or all dried? what about the lemon juice component? or do you give the gift for the recipient to keep in fridge?

                            2. re: superluckycat

                              Some of us don't give a dam' about the calories.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  Sir Khan,

                                  As a newbie may I say how much I enjoy your posts.

                                  And I agree! There are times I am sensible and will be vaguely guided by those annoying, arbitrary calorie thingies. But that's because I know there will be a hedonistic, decadent, luscious dish just waiting for my spoon!

                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                    Yea, that too, not sure that's a reason to consider it a bad practice.

                                    1. re: Perilagu Khan


                                      I don't go out to restaurants every day, nor do I have bread dipped in oil or covered in butter every day (boy would that get dull). The extra calories every now and then aren't going to kill me.

                                  2. I have occasionally seen it in Europe (Spain & Italy), but what you do not see there (except occasionally in the UK, which I presume got it from the US) is anything else mixed into the oil, especially the all-too-common US practice of mixing balsamic vinegar into it. Not to mention that horrendous Carrabas spice mix.

                                    11 Replies
                                    1. re: BobB

                                      bob, horrendous? you tried it and didn't like it? or just the idea of it? i think it is delicious! to each his own....

                                      1. re: alkapal

                                        So Alka, does it taste the same? And yes, it is addictive

                                        1. re: BiscuitBoy

                                          yes, it tastes the same. and as i said, a little goes a long way. try it, it is very easy. i'd guess you could do a shelf-stable version by using all dried herbs, and only adding chopped garlic, lemon juice at the time of serving. but fresh is always better. (but don't hold off if you have most/some of the fresh herbs, and can sub a couple of dried herbs from the cabinet....i've done that, too.)

                                          very savory!

                                          1. re: alkapal

                                            I love that recipe, and have been making it for a year now. It is great with fresh Italian bread, as well as pitas. I have also gotten into the habit of eating Labneh (Middle-Eastern Strained Yogurt) with a fruity olive oil poured on top and a bit of salt. Also great with pita or chewy Italian/French bread.

                                            I say to each his own as far as what type of fat/dip/seasoning to enjoy with their bread. Regional customs don't concern me. If I were in a part of Italy where people don't normally "dip", then I won't. But I certainly will want to (or might sneak a bite when no one is looking). In my family, bread is commonly used for sopping up sauces or juices. It might not be high class, but it certainly is tasty.

                                            1. re: madgreek

                                              +1 - I love the combination of good imported olive oil and a well-aged Balsamic vinegar. Also, love to clean my plate with bread which is mostly done in the comfort of my home and would never be done in public where it is not part of the appropriate etiquette.

                                              1. re: fldhkybnva

                                                Actually it is acceptable etiquette to use your bread to wipe the sauce off your plate. This goes back all the way to the days of Emily Post, it's not some sort of nouvelle manners. It was recommended that you use your fork to maneuver your bread across your plate, but fingers were not out of the question so long as you can do it without making a mess. And it seems obvious but of course it should just be a bite sized piece of bread, not a whole slice or whole dinner roll.

                                                1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                  Oh, lovely perhaps I'll spread my habit to my public eating behaviors.

                                                  1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                    i always smiled to myself thinking of having to push around a bite of bread with my fork to sop up gravy. i have done it on a couple of occasions when getting the sauce was critical, but the event was fancy.

                                                    one of my favorite comfort food memories is a simple but well-seasoned chicken brown gravy on a slice of white bread, eaten with a knife and fork -- and lots of pepper in the gravy. come to think of it, i might have to make some of that today.

                                          2. re: alkapal

                                            More the idea of it - there is very little on the Carrabas menu that I can stand to eat (yet I find myself in one 2 - 3 times a year for business reasons), and it's just one more thing about them that rubs me the wrong way. But you're right, "horrendous" is unjustified. Sorry, I succumb too easily to hyperbole.

                                            1. re: BobB

                                              well, i'm not close to carrabbas, and have only been twice, and i only learned about the olive oil they use by getting salad and dip mix "to go" -- they give you little foil single-serving olive oils from "borges". my sister loves the chicken bryan, my brother-in-law gets the chicken caesar (they go more often, down in cape coral florida). the food is good, not "great" imo, but i think it is better than a lot of the local alternatives.

                                              1. re: alkapal

                                                I'm not close to one either - I'm in Boston, where there are none, but I report to an office in suburban Cincinnati and have to visit there a few times a year. There's a Carrabas there that's popular with my local colleagues, so occasionally I find myself dragged along. What bugs me is that their menu is not only not Italian, it's not even very Italian-American, it's more their own idiosyncratic take on what Italian-American might be if you ignore the standard red sauce dishes and get "creative" (except for their spaghetti and meatballs, which is practically inedible - and how hard is it to get spaghetti and meatballs right?). But I'm getting too far off onto a tangent here. I think I'll pop over to the Chains board and continue my critique of Carrabas there.

                                        2. I don't know but maybe the middle easterners started it, because we dip little bits of bread into olive oil and then zatar or duka, spices, or lebna..

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: BamiaWruz

                                            Ok, now I have to find a good zatar! I was already craving felafel im chips - I wonder where that one started!

                                            1. re: TampaAurora

                                              TA, Penzey's makes a good zatar blend.


                                              Or you can make it yourself (Penzey's also sells the ground sumac used in their zatar blend).



                                            2. re: BamiaWruz

                                              Funny, about the duka, or dukkah. An Egyptian thing, and boy is it ever wonderful.

                                              Certainly dipping bread into olive oil has been around for many, many years.

                                              With dukkah, you dip the pita or flatbread into oil, and then into the ground nut and spice mixture. My eyes rolled back into my head the first time I had it -- such a great and different flavor. Here's my favorite recipe.

                                              PISTACHIO DUKKAH
                                              Dukkah varies in its blend of nuts, seeds and spices. You dip your pita or bread in oil and then in the dukkah. For pistachio-based dukkah, I like using pistachio oil also.

                                              1 cup shelled pistachios
                                              1/2 cup sesame seeds
                                              1/4 cup coriander seeds
                                              1/4 cup cumin seeds or 2 teaspoons ground cumin
                                              1/2 teaspoon dried mint (optional)
                                              1/4 teaspoon salt
                                              freshly ground black pepper
                                              Pita or Flat bread

                                              Oven preheated to 375. Toast sesame seeds 3 minutes, coriander seeds and pistachios for 5 minutes. Grind the pistachios coarsely, by pulsing on the food processor or using a mortar and pestle. Grind the coriander and sesame also, one at a time. Your grind can be chunky or fine, but be careful not to overprocess if using a food processor. Avoid turning it into a paste. Mix the ground nuts and seeds together, add salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container. Keeps for about one month. Serve with a small bowl of pistachio oil or high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, and pita or flatbread. Dip the bread into the oil and then the Dukkah. Makes about 2 cups.

                                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                                What???? This practice wasn't invented by the Macaroni Grill???
                                                I'm in shock.

                                            3. I have no idea where it started but what I do know is that I have a natural instinct to dip bread into whatever is around. Olive oil is on the table at Italian restaurants and so is cheese, so hey, let's dip. The same goes for Friday night shabbat dinners - I dip my challah bread into my wine!

                                              6 Replies
                                              1. re: Chew on That

                                                I'm an instinctive dipper too! I've got no idea where it started, but I know it's a wide practice in Spain. In the morning, people order rolls and drizzle good olive oil over them with a little salt and pepper. I saw this as a student there and am still preferring olive oil over butter/margarine on my bread 10 years later!

                                                1. re: Sra. Swanky

                                                  I wish I could go to Spain and check this out!

                                                  1. re: Chew on That

                                                    You know those little condiment packets that might have ketchup, mayo, mustard, whatever in them? In Spain they have them filled with olive oil so you can tear off the top, squirt one or two packets on your bread, and eat that with your ham, tomato, cheese, whatever. I thought it was pretty funny when I first saw it, but it sure is practical.

                                                    1. re: tmso

                                                      I remember those!!! How come Americans don't think of that?! It's brilliant!

                                                      1. re: Sra. Swanky

                                                        those little packets are given with the takeout from carrabbas -- for the spicy dipping oil. good spanish extra virgin oil from "borges" http://www.starfinefoods.com/history....

                                                        look here, other suppliers have the individual packets! http://www.wildernessdining.com/bp104...

                                                        oooh, look at the infused oils with truffle or fines herbs! http://www.oli-ole.com/index.php?sect...

                                                    2. re: Chew on That

                                                      Keep me posted if you do. I got some great food recs that you shouldn't miss! :o)

                                                2. I'm not sure where it came from. I love it, but it's definitely not authentically italian, and I never saw it when I was there. Like you said, oil and vinegar are used for salads over there, and I think most Italians are kind of appalled that we dip our bread into salad dressing!

                                                  1. Funny. My father is Italian, and I grew up eating crusty bread dipped in olive oil, thinking it must be some part of being Italian. The rest of his family was on the other coast, and Dad didn't bring a lot of traditions with him out west. On the other hand, my parents are wine lovers and bored us kids with countless summer vacation trips through the Napa valley, so maybe that's where they picked up the olive oil thing.

                                                    1. As a Californian, I say, that's California. Find it very boring, myself. Many out here are more into trends than taste. But no doubt a few good dishes will emerge.

                                                      1. I spend a good deal of time in Italy (Florence and Sardegna) and I've never seen Italians do it.

                                                        1. well, maybe italians didn't come up with the idea, but olive oil and bread have been around as long as humanity! look at all of the mediterranean countries and the middle east for inspiration of dipping bread in olive oil with spices, dips made with legumes and/or pastes and/or herbs -- or dipping bread in lots of other non "dip" food, too. dipping is good. long live the dipper!

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: alkapal

                                                            There's a restaurant in Denver whose theme is having dozens of dipping sauces. I didn't try it.


                                                          2. I took my grandmother to a very nice Italian resturant many years ago and the host seated us, brought over the basket of warm bread and proceeded to make a show of pouring olive oil into a saucer and seasoning it. She watched with a little smile on her face which turned into a giggle as he walked away. When I asked her what was so funny, she told me that, in Portugal, the only time you would dip bread in olive oil was if you were too poor to afford butter.

                                                            I don't know if the same thing is true in Italy, but it is a possible explanation.

                                                            2 Replies
                                                            1. re: NE_Elaine

                                                              Interesting, but Wikipedia says that butter was not a common food in the Mediterranean due to issues of spoilage. I wonder if with refrigeration that butter would have been seen as a luxury, and people might have switched from olive oil to butter.


                                                              1. re: KaimukiMan

                                                                Butter only appears with frequency as you travel northward from the Mediterranean because of the paucity of grazing land and material southward. In fact, the frequency of all dairy falls off as you head southward, and what dairy there is goes into yogurt and cheese. That was the explanation I learned in a CIA class, IIRC. Certainly, it wasn't a part of classical civilizatons, but it was produced even then by the "northern Barbarians." Refrigeration problems were secondary to lack of production. Obviously, as you travel northward, things cool down as well.

                                                            2. Hello..This is a practice from the Muslims, from the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
                                                              The Prophet has taught mankind to drink the the OLIVE OIL because it comes from a
                                                              BLESSED tree....that is why u can't find it in iTALY or anywhere else, because it is practise of the ARAB muslims..hope this ansewrs your question.

                                                              3 Replies
                                                                1. re: shamilsolidus

                                                                  And Jews will refer to "the oil of our people" with reverence.

                                                                  1. re: shamilsolidus

                                                                    I am sure it is a practice of Muslims, but that does not mean it is FROM Muslims. From everything I've gathered reading about this practice over the last several hours, it appears the practice is very very old indeed, in fact probably about as old as the cultivation of olives and grain.

                                                                    Whoever came up with it, it's delicious and (in moderation) nutritious.

                                                                  2. Well, I enjoy dipping good bread in olive oil. Wherever it started, I am happy it got started somewhere.

                                                                    1. It's hard to say for sure, but I actually have some idea, being an anthropologist and culinary archaeology enthusiast.
                                                                      Up until about a hundred years ago, the practice was common in Italy. One poster was right; with wider availability of butter, and the influence of the sensibilities of other parts of Europe, it became more associated with the lower classes. But you can find the practice smattered in just about any area that once was within the domain of the Roman Empire. The practice was almost universal amongst Romans, as well as their subjects and allies. It was pretty much widespread over any part of the classical world, but it was ESPECIALLY associated with Greece, where many people considered some of the best olive oil to come from. But you can find mention of this all the way back to the Sumerians, who also had access to olives. If I were to guess, the practice probably originated in the Levant, where olives were first processed en masse, and break was being baked, during the late stone age / copper age. But the practice may be almost as old as humanity itself. I really hope that helps. :)

                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                      1. re: KaelusApicius

                                                                        Verily, there's nothing new under the sun.

                                                                      2. It may not happen in restaurants and tourist areas in Italy, but it certainly happens in the homes. When I ask my Italian family about it's origins, they say that it is the way that they have always eaten bread, and it has been this way throughout many generations. Eat in a genuine Italian household and you will learn more about Italian culture than you will ever learn from the Italy that tourists see.

                                                                        1. While I can't verify if it is a traditional Italian custom, Ms. Clicquot is correct. This is very common in the Catalonion region of Spain. In fact, a very common dish is pan con tomate (castillian name, not catalan) which is grilled/toasted bread rubbed with tomato, drizzled in olive oil and seasoned with a little bit of salt and pepper.

                                                                          3 Replies
                                                                          1. re: lovesCheese

                                                                            Definitely! Kind of like a brushetta appetizer - pan con tomate or pan amb tomaquet (in Catalan) is a delicious tapa or pincho in many parts of Spain, particularly in Cataluña. It makes me smile every time that something so simple can be so good. :)

                                                                            1. re: Sra. Swanky

                                                                              I can say that Andalucians are eating pan con tomate for breakfast with the requisite olive oil, crusty bread I toasted was typical where I lived.

                                                                              1. re: melpy

                                                                                Yes - great breakfast food too! Although the one I make at home just doesn't taste the same...

                                                                          2. It's not traditional in Italy. I've traveled throughout Italy, and have only rarely seen bread served with dipping oil, and then only in places that cater to tourists. With that in mind I have to say that this is one of the great improvements the USA has made over Italy, including fighting (since Caesar) and pizza.

                                                                            3 Replies
                                                                            1. re: MonMauler

                                                                              You may not have seen it, but I can assure you that it is traditional in Italy. Most of my family are still living in Italy and I only moved to the UK a few years ago.

                                                                              1. re: PMazzariello

                                                                                Cool. I'm headed back to Italy for a week or so in the summer. I hope to enjoy these restaurants with bread and oil. The bread I've encountered at restaurants in Italy has been consistently good and could only be improved by some high-quality dipping oil.

                                                                                1. re: MonMauler

                                                                                  BTW, I'll be sailing along the amalfi coast if you have any good suggestions. We are all adventurous eaters and up for any type of restaurant.

                                                                            2. It is common in Spain for breakfast, with or without tomato rubbed on it.

                                                                              1. A few years ago I was in Florence with a group of friends (great people, great fun but not very food focused). We went to diiner at an inexpensive restaurant. On the table was a bottle of olive oil and a small stoneware dish. When the bread came one of my companions poured some oil into the dish and everyone (except me) started dipping. Being familar with this being an American custom I was rather puzzled by the oil and dish on the table but wrote it off to the the tourist nature of the restaurant. Later I asked for an ashtray. The waiter looked around the table top, saw the oil in the dish and burst into laughter. He brought the owner to our table who, while trying unsuccessfully to choke back his giggles, explained to our group that the lovely stoneware dish was indeed the missing ashtray. We all had a good laugh.

                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                1. re: Pwmfan

                                                                                  I love this story.

                                                                                  Funny to see this topic revived after all these years.

                                                                                  1. In olive oil producing regions, not so much the north of Italy or the North of Greece, olive oil is poured onto food and used in cooking like you would add water to make a soup stock.

                                                                                    Southern Greece and Greek islands, where most of the olive oil is produced, have a fall harvest and crush the olives for oil. They save the very first pressing for home use and celebrate the harvest and crush with bowl fulls of olive oil and bread. The rest of the year they use it in salads and cooking, etc.

                                                                                    If you are sitting in an American Italian restaurant and are dipping your bread into an herbed olive oil blend, you are not in Italy. Only the freshest and best oils are reserved for drinking from a wine glass................

                                                                                    1. The mainstay food item for the Armies of Rome, the Roman Legions was bread, olive oil, and chick peas (Garbanzos). Very little meat was eaten and was considered not particularly healthy and the food of the less well off masses. The Legions recruited in Hispania were especially fond of this diet. Each tent group had a grain grinder and the means to bake coarse bread from the grain they were issued on a regular basis. Since refrigeration was non-existent this was a very practical matter.

                                                                                      1. imagine my smug bemusement: I had first moved to California in 1990 and by then it was fairly common practice in most types of restaurants. maybe 6 or 7 years later on a visit to my roots, during lunch with the folks at an Italian place this was served along with my parents instructions in a tone like they had invented the idea!

                                                                                        source of the practice? no idea, but like it.