Choosing an olive oil from a shelf of bottles at wildly varied price points can be tricky. Olive oil is so versatile because there are many flavors, notes, and colors. In that respect, it’s like wine. And like wine, it can be intimidating.
We hear words like extra and virgin thrown around a lot, but most people couldn’t tell you what that actually means. And with tons of fraudulent bottles clogging the market, it can be hard to tell which olive oils are actually worth your time and your money. Let’s face it, olive oil is NOT cheap.
1. Only buy oil labeled extra-virgin. This is not a guarantee that the oil will be the best, but at least it will probably not be among the worst. Bottles labeled just plain “Olive Oil” and “Light Olive Oil” are refined oils and, like vegetable oil, while they’re not bad in any way, they are not very interesting.
2. Read the label. Even if it’s written in Italian, French or Spanish, you can probably figure out enough to recognize harvest and “use by” dates. The finest producers always put the harvest date proudly on their olive oil. The use-by date can be a little deceptive since it is usually 18 months from bottling, rather than from harvest.
Check for the region the oil was produced in. If you see more than one country, region, or even city listed, put the bottle back on the store shelf. You don’t want the olives blended from all different countries. Because when it comes to the olives used in olive oil, the things that grow together go together.
You want to look for the olive cultivar. This is just a fancy way of saying which type of olives were used to make the oil. The more specific information the producers display on the bottle, the more likely that extra-virgin claim is legit.
Remember to always check the harvest date, and opt for the freshest you can find.
3. Avoid anything in a clear glass bottle, no matter how pretty and enticing the label. Light is the great enemy of olive oil and the oil inside will likely have lost most of its flavor and aroma. Look for extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles or, better yet, opaque tins. Olive Oil does not like light, so keep yours out of the sun. Your kitchen counter is not a good place to keep it.
4. Know that the term “first cold pressing,” although widely used, is redundant. By legal definition, the extra-virgin oil must come from the first (usually the only) pressing, which must be accomplished with no added heat (at ambient temperatures no higher than around 80ºF.
5. Extra-virgin olive oil does not improve with age. Fresher is better, and right out of the mill, olive oil is a fabulous experience. Fresh oil may have unexpectedly assertive flavors of bitterness and pungency that sometimes override the fruitiness. These challenging flavors are treasured by connoisseurs because they indicate high quality, and by nutritionists, because they’re evidence of lots of healthful polyphenols.
6. Light is the enemy and so is heat. Keep your precious bottles in a cool, dark environment. I have a couple of tin containers within reach of my stove, each of which holds 1 ½ cups of oil, enough for a couple of days in my kitchen. They get refilled from the bulk of my oil, which I keep in a cupboard in an unheated pantry.
7. Use your oil! And don’t be afraid to cook with extra-virgin. It is perfectly stable up to about 420ºF. The Joy of Cooking says 360ºF is the optimum temperature for deep-frying, I use extra-virgin comfortably for almost all of my cooking. And because it doesn’t get better with age, I use last year’s oil for cooking, and this year’s fresh oil for garnishing.
8. Use it liberally! Learn to love a hot baked potato, cracked open and topped with lots of the freshest finest oil you can buy, a sprinkle of fleur de sel and freshly ground Telicherry pepper. Or try my favorite Catalan breakfast—grilled rustic bread with a ripe tomato crushed into the top, then salt and pepper and a glug of extra-virgin over it all.
9. Buy from trusted retailers who know how to maintain quality. I find the best quality olive oil from online sources. Here are a few good ones: olio2go.com,
dipaloselects.com, markethallfoods.com, cortibrothers.com,
zingermans.com, and www.gustiamo.com
10. Like with other juices, fresher is always better when it comes to olive oil.
Olive oil is adversely affected by several factors including time passed since its pressing, heat, light, and air. Luckily the shelf life is a little bit longer than that of the kale, apple, and parsley blend you love olive oil is at its best in its first two years. An older bottle probably won’t hurt you, but it slowly loses its beautiful flavors and health benefits with every passing day.
Olive oil harvests in the northern hemisphere (usually in countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy) take place in October and November. This means if you’re looking for the freshest bottle, you’ll want the harvest date listed on the label to be from the previous year. Anything earlier than that indicates an old bottle unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t get better with age
11. But know that if you go for just regular “virgin,” you’ll still get all the health benefits.
While the lower quality virgin olive oil may not taste as good as its extra-virgin counterparts, there isn’t any nutritional difference between the two. Pure olive oils, on the other hand, have been chemically processed which means you may want to avoid them altogether. When you see a bottle labeled pure, light, or olive oil, this can be an indicator that it is a refined, lesser quality product.
12. Different olives produce oils that taste different.
Olive oil adds depth and dimension to virtually any dish. And experts make careers tasting and assessing the subtleties of olive oil. Hundreds of olive varieties are cultivated around the world, and dozens are valued for producing delicious oil.
Knowing which olives were used can also help you determine what the oil will taste like. If you see an oil made with a taggiasca olive, it’s going to be light and delicate and sweet. But if you see an oil made with a nocellara olive, it will be leafy, herbaceous, and robust.”
Different varieties absolutely have different flavor profiles and personalities, but the end result of the oil is determined by much more including geography, the method of harvesting and pressing, as well as blending and storage. Again, think wine, there are plenty of luscious Pinot Noirs and plenty of bad Pinot Noirs.
To really use this knowledge to your advantage, you’ll need to have a bit of olive intel in your back pocket. A quick Google search of the different types should give you enough flavor info to make a decision. Or try a new type each time you buy a bottle and see what you like best. There hundreds of different olive varieties out there and olive oils vary greatly from region to region, so there are a lot of flavors to be had. If you’re at a store that allows you to taste olive oil, take advantage! The more you taste, the more you’ll discover what styles make you happy.
13. You can’t tell how an olive oil will taste by looking at it.
Just as you wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you don’t want to judge an olive oil by its color. A greener olive oil isn’t necessarily a better or fresher olive oil, though this is commonly thought to be the case. Color is determined by factors like the type of olives used and when the oil was extracted. The only way to truly judge the quality of an oil is to crack it open and give it a taste.
14. You don’t want to cheap out on olive oil, but it shouldn’t break the bank either.
As you’re scanning the oil aisle, there’s definitely the potential for sticker shock, but there’s a wide range of prices and you don’t have to drop a ton of dough for a decent bottle. As for how much you should be spending in general, Try not to drop below $15 per liter, which is about 34 ounces. You’ll often find bottles that size at the supermarket and it’s a good amount to have on hand if you cook regularly. (If you don’t cook that often, it’s easy to find smaller bottles, too.)
15. Use cheaper bottles for cooking and pricier oils for drizzling.
If you do decide to splurge on a pricier bottle one between $20 and $40 you may want to reserve it for drizzling and finishing dishes. When you cook olive oil, you cook the nuances out of it. So if you really want to savor the flavor of an oil soaked into a piece of bread or poured over a bowl of hummus, keep one nice bottle on hand for that, and use another (cheaper) bottle for all your cooking needs.
Many chefs tend to cook with cheaper (but still totally respectable) EVOO, like California Olive Ranch, and save the truly mind-blowing stuff, like Castillo de Canna for drizzling and finishing.
16. And finally, you absolutely should use olive oil for way more than just salads.
Olive oil is an incredible ingredient and the cornerstone of the famous Mediterranean diet. Exquisite olive oil elevates everything it touches: salads, grilled veggies, meat and seafood, soups, stews, pasta, and risotto really do go from good to awesome when anointed with yummy EVOO. It’s the perfect bridge between tradition and innovation. It can be utilized in a plethora of culinary applications with astounding results.
From cooking with to finishing to everything in between, olive oil can elevate many dishes.