If you haven't guessed already, I'm a big fan of olive oil. Not just for its taste, but for its health benefits as well. In an era when people (especially Americans) easily succumb to the latest dietary trends (no matter how absurd) and often defend said trends to the death regardless of their scientific validity, no one can deny that people have been eating olive oil for thousands of years. Olive oil contains a number of antioxidants and polyphenols, which are believed to defend against cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's, and cancer. About 70 percent of olive oil is composed of mono-unsaturated fatty acids, which helps to improve blood cholesterol levels. In addition, olive oil is wonderful for your skin, hair, and overall digestive system. To learn more on the health benefits of olive oil see here.
To begin, it's important to know that many oils labeled "extra virgin" are in fact not, such as the many generic oils you'll find at supermarkets. In my opinion, they should be labeled "extra bastardized olive oil." Truly extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality grade olive oil, the standards of which are set by the IOC (International Olive Council), EU, and other governing bodies. Extra virgin oil must legally meet a series of chemical requirements (with an acidity of 0.8% or lower) and pass a taste panel, proving that the oil is indeed fruity and free of any taste flaws. Unfortunately, while analysis methods and standards continue to evolve and get better, testing extra virgin olive oil has been easy to fool in the past, leaving the consumer at a loss. It's hard to say exactly the number of the oils produced in the world that are falsely labeled "extra virgin," but the numbers are vast. You can read an in-depth account of how slick and corruptive the oil producing world can be in Tom Mueller's enlightening book, Extra Virginity. As Mueller explains, many generic olive oils on the market are blends of olives from several countries which are refined and deodorized (in an effort to remove bad or off flavors) to achieve one bland, uniform flavor. These oils are devoid of any taste, color, character, or health benefits, and equivalent to what the Italians call "lampante oil" (lamp-burning oil unfit for human consumption).
You will see bottles commonly labeled "First-Cold Pressed", "Cold Pressed", or "Cold Extracted". Today, these terms are pretty much obsolete, but producers continue to use them on their labels because they know that's what consumer's are looking for. These terms aren't necessarily bad, they're just leftover from a time when olive oil was made using hydraulic and screw presses, where after the first pressing, the olive paste was combined with hot water to extract as much oil as possible and re-pressed, creating a second pressed oil of poor quality. Today, all extra virgin olive oil is first cold pressed almost by definition, as olives aren't pressed at all, but centrifuged.
Not only are there an incredible amount of olive oils to choose from, there are many different types, each suited for different uses. If you think of olive oil as you would wine, it's a bit easier to understand. Oils will have the unique characteristics of the olives used and the climate in which they were grown, which varies dramatically from region to region. In addition, no olive oil harvest will ever be exactly alike, much like wine vintages. Unlike wine, however, olive oil does not get better with age. In fact, it should be bought and consumed rather quickly and not sit on the pantry shelf for a number of years.
There are a spectrum of oils to choose from, some more delicate than others. These range from oils that are herbaceous, grassy, and intensely peppery, to oils that are delicate and mild with floral undertones. The bold grassy oils are wonderful for bread, pasta, and certain vegetables, while the fruity, floral oils are perfect for fish and more delicate vegetables and salads. The biggest asset to choosing an oil is your taste buds. That being said, if you've only experienced generic grocery store quality oil, don't be turned off by the extremely flavorful and unique tasting extra virgin olive oils out there. Bold or identifiable flavors are often a good indication of high-quality oils.
In terms of cooking, quality extra virgin olive oil is fine for sauteing and other cooking needs. However, a big green, grassy tasting oil with lots of sediment probably isn't ideal for this. I generally use a more moderate tasting oil (and more economical) for sauteing. Using olive oil for deep frying or high temperature cooking over 400 degrees F is not particularly a good idea, not to mention expensive. There are many other types of oils on the market that have much higher smoke-points than olive oil and are ideal for high temperature cooking. Once the oil reaches its smoke-point, it begins to smoke and can impart unpleasant tastes in your food. On average, olive oil has a smoke-point anywhere between 350 and 410 degrees F. The lower the oil's acidity (the better the quality) the higher the olive oil's smoke-point will be.
While selling oil, I had many customers request olive oils exclusively from Italy. They wouldn't even taste an oil from another country even if I was certain it was exactly what they were looking for taste-wise. Italy is actually the number one importer of olive oil. Many Italian producers buy oil from other countries and turn around and sell it as "100% pure Italian oil." Aside from Italy, some of my favorite oils have come from France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Morocco, and a number of other countries throughout the Mediterranean. In the U.S., California produces some incredible olive oils which are gaining popularity every year (many people are surprised to learn that olives have been grown in California since the 17th century, when Spanish missionaries began planting trees). All in all, it's important to remember that as consumers, we should buy based on what tastes the best, and not on some preconceived notion of where we think an oil should come from. This is why it's important (if at all possible) to taste oils before you buy them. Olive oil "bars" are becoming more and more popular. If there is no such place in your area, and tasting them is not an option, I've shared Tom Mueller's helpful list of reputable places to get your oil (see here).
Not that you should buy an oil based on its price, but on the whole, expect to pay more for quality oils. Anything costing about 10 dollars and under is a good indication that the oil is of inferior quality. When I was selling olive oil, many customers would be outraged by the notion of forking out 20 to 30 dollars for a bottle of oil. This always baffled me since they had often just come from buying a 30 dollar bottle of wine for their dinner that evening. Wine is consumed over one meal, while oil will last for many weeks. When I alluded to this fact I was often met with a disapproving look, one that suggested I had a few screws loose. It's important to remember that producing quality extra virgin olive oil is expensive. For example, something as simple as how the olives were picked (by hand or by machine) will effect the price of the final product. Many small estate producers still pick their olives by hand (so there is lesser chance of bruising the fruit) which is more labor intensive and thus more expensive.
All in all, I hope this post wasn't completely overwhelming. Hopefully, with this knowledge you should be able to walk into a store and find a quality extra virgin olive oil with confidence. Good Luck!
Key things to know when buying extra virgin olive oil:
- Be sure the label says "extra virgin."
- Look for labels that say "Product of (wherever it's from)" not "Imported From ___" or "Packed In ___" or "Bottled In ___" etc. Just because a label says the oil is "imported" from somewhere, doesn't mean that it was actually made there.
- It's always a good sign when there's a "best by" or "harvest date" or both. Try to buy oils from this year's harvest. "Best by" dates are typically two years after the oil was bottled. So when looking at the label, it's better when the "best by" date is two years away, as this is a good indication that the oil is fresh.
- Look for bottles that provide a specific mill on the label.
- Look for the variety of olives used in the oil, such as arbequina, leccino, mission etc.
- Today, the terms "First Cold Pressed" or "Cold Pressed" are largely obsolete, as olives are no longer "pressed," but centrifuged.
- Look for bottles with dark colored glass or other containers that help protect the oil from sunlight.
- There is not necessarily a difference in quality between filtered and unfiltered olive oil. Unfiltered oils usually have a shorter shelf life as the sediment can spoil faster than the actual oil, creating off flavors. So if buying unfiltered oils, just make sure they are extremely fresh. Filtered oils generally have longer shelf lives, so refer to the best by date or harvest date and use your best judgement.
- Olive oils come in many shades and colors, so don't judge an oil based on looks alone.
- Bottles labeled as "Light" olive oil are simply marketing terms. These oils still contain the same number of calories per gram as regular olive oils. The only difference is that the olives used to make "light" olive oil are usually of inferior quality and have been deodorized to remove their bad taste, making them devoid of nearly all health benefits.
- Remember, your taste buds are your biggest assest.
- For a list of credible places to buy quality extra virgin olive oil in the U.S. and Canada, see here.
- Do not refrigerate your oil, place it in a cool dark place away from your stove or direct sunlight. A cupboard or pantry works best.
- Don't hoard your oil or buy more than you can consume in a reasonable amount of time (I know it's easy to do once you've discovered a few that you love). Opened bottles should be consumed in 1 to 2 months.