The kind of oil you use in your food matters. This is true especially when it comes to bottles labeled extra-virgin olive oil, which can be anything from awful to something so sublime you want to sip it from a spoon. Picking a bottle at random from the supermarket shelf just because it has the lowest price won’t solve the problem. You need to be an informed consumer, especially since most governments aren’t doing a great job of weeding out the olive oil shams from the saints, the U.S. included.
In a $12 billion global business, the stakes are high, so producers go to great lengths to keep selling enormous volumes. “Most [sellers] are just traders who mix olive oil in Frankenstein quantities and call it extra-virgin olive oil,” says Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. “In most cases of crappy oil, it’s not from the place on the label. It is a jungle out there. Koroneiki [the most common Greek variety] is a perfect blending oil that gives generic oil oomph.” As for the problem of shipping oil transatlantic in hot containers, “only the best who care what oil is will ship in refrigerated containers,” adds Dan Flynn, executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center. “But most don’t even consider it.”
So how do you pick a good olive oil—and there are many made by impassioned, principled professionals—that you can trust and that’s right for you? Essentially by learning more about olive oil quality and grades, using your senses to taste and smell it, and listening to referrals to get the best stuff. Flynn asks that you keep one thing in mind: If you’ve had a bad OO experience; don’t turn away from it. There are plenty of great olive oils within reach. Our olive oil primer below will help you get started.
What is olive oil? First understand that olive oil is the juice of a fruit—the olive. This fruit juice, like wine, is alive in the bottle and continually changing with external conditions like high heat, which can oxidize and (rarely) hydrogenate it, and light such as UV, which oxidizes the oil and breaks down its chlorophyll. Several varieties of olive, each with its own characteristics, can produce oil. But the best olives oils are often made from one variety. Under optimal conditions, the oil contains up to 30 nutrients, among them beta-carotene, lutein, and vitamin E. It comprises mainly monounsaturated fat, which reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol and raises HDL (good) cholesterol in the bloodstream. The higher the oil quality, the more immune-strengthening antioxidants it has; antioxidants are bitter, so bitter olive oil is a good thing. Olive oil is also a natural anti-inflammatory, generating an ibuprofen-like effect. A cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil protects the body from obesity and cancer, and it can reduce the risk of heart disease (with two tablespoons minimum a day) and diabetes type 2. It is a myth that its fats turn saturated or to trans fats when it’s used in cooking, even for high-heat frying, according to the International Olive Oil Council (IOC).
- Olive oil, which contains only the oil of the olive and no solvents or other kinds of oils.
- Virgin olive oils, which are olive oils with no additives, created only by mechanical milling or other physical conditions, such as minimal heating, that do not alter the oil.
- Olive-pomace oil, which is the oil from treating olive pomace (the paste left after mechanical milling) with solvents or other physical treatments. Mechanical milling refers to placing olives between two plates and pressing them together until the fruit releases its oil. The most rustic mills use large stone disks. “Cold-pressed” means little heat was applied during extraction.
IOC Grades of Olive Oil:
- Extra-virgin olive oil. The highest quality, is virgin olive oil with excellent flavor and odor
- Virgin olive oil, which has reasonably good flavor and odor.
- Virgin olive oil that’s not fit for human consumption without further processing (aka lampanate virgin olive oil), has poor flavor and odor, and is intended for non-food use.
- Olive oil, which consists of a blend of refined and virgin olive oils for consumption without further processing.
- Refined olive oil, which is virgin olive oils obtained through refining. Poor-quality olive-pomace oils cannot be labeled as olive oil.
Early versus late harvest: Early-harvest oil is high in polyphenols with a resultant pungency and pepperiness. According to one Boston importer of high-quality Greek producers, “early-harvest November olives require more fruit to make each liter of oil, but it is prized for its superior qualities.” It is essentially “unripe oil and is the most expensive and sought-after oil, with the most aroma, bright green color, and highest antioxidant content.” Late-harvest oil means “the fruit is picked black and ripe. Waiting longer into the winter to pick means the fruit may have more oil, which increases the risk that the fruit will be damaged by frost. Late harvest or “winter” fruit is riper so, like other ripe fruit, it has a light, mellow taste with little bitterness and more floral flavors.”
Filtered versus unfiltered: Some aficionados swear by this more natural state of the oil, but others say the sediment can go bad faster than the oil and emit a musty odor and taste.
Judging Good Olive Oil: Experts differ on how to judge. But Fairway Markets’ great Steve Jenkins, speaking on the margins of the New York International Olive Oil Competition, advised a reporter to forget taste and go with smell. Even so, in a nod to taste he displays his oils at Fairway with a sample container and dipping bread. Jenkins, who believes olive oil “is the most important ingredient in your kitchen” and keeps about 18 in his, says color is not important, nor is a pretty label or bottle. “I would only be influenced by what my nose delivered to my taste buds. That’s a formal way of tasting olive oil. It would have distinct, discernible flavors. It’s gotta be fresh (it gets tired so fast),” he says. “No artificial light or sunlight. White and fluorescent light will rob olive oil not only of its color but also of its nutrients, right through the glass. Find the harvest date on the bottle. If it’s not from the last harvest year, put it back.”
Flynn looks for freshness, which comes through in fruity notes. “Like any other fruit juice, freshness matters,” he says. “My top recommendation would be to look for a harvest date on the packaging that’s within a year to 15 months of purchase. Not all olive oil has this date. It’s not necessary that producers put one on, but the better ones do…I’m not necessarily saying to avoid the ones without a harvest date.” He says tasting will ferret out rancid oils that smell like old nuts or crayon. “A really fresh oil will smell like you just opened a bag of fresh salad greens, like fresh produce. A lot of people are used to old oils and judge them that way,” he says. But that would be a mistake. Freshness is best, so learn to identify it.
Mueller cautions us not to confuse the harvest date with the “best by” date, which is the date when oil goes into the bottle, not when the olives are harvested. Supermarket oil should, of course, say “extra virgin.” And the oil should not be a bargain: “If it’s substantially under $10 a liter, there’s reason to be concerned. This doesn’t even cover the transportation cost. Increase your odds by paying at or slightly north of $10. The label should include “a point that you can visit on Google Earth and actually count the trees. “If the oil you choose smells like putty or old socks, take it back and ask for something fresh. If it doesn’t taste good, don’t just accept it. Be empowered. Consumers will change this, not legislation,” he says.
Where to buy the best olive oil: If you’re on the East Coast, start at the gourmet Fairway Markets in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Steve Jenkins scours small, storied producers from the Mediterranean to Mexico and brings back some of the best in the world, with a strong preference for early-harvest oils.
You can also check out Tom Mueller’s website, which includes amazing lists of Great Olives Oils of the World by continent and country, a Buyer’s Guide to judging and buying olive oil, and his recommendations for great supermarket olive oil. Fairway, Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods are among the supermarkets on his list.
If you’re looking for the finest olive oils in the world, here’s a list of the world’s top 250, crowned at the prestigious New York International Olive Oil Competition. Points of sale will soon be added to each winner’s page.