How to Buy Olive Oil: Tips For Discovering the best bottle of olive oil


The world of olive oil is vast and complex. With so many different types of oil to choose from, no one could blame a person for getting overwhelmed. But don’t fret—a few simple tips can steer you in the right direction and help you find an olive oil you’re bound to love.

What Is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is oil pressed from olives. Its use dates back 6,000 years, originating in what are now Iran, Syria, and Palestine, before making its way to the Mediterranean, with its well-known olive groves.

Historically, olive oil has been used in religious ceremonies and medicine, and it has become an important ingredient in food for many cultures.

In the United States, you can buy three types of olive oil: extra-virgin olive oil, olive oil, and light-tasting olive oil. Extra virgin, which makes up 60 percent of all the olive oil sold in North America, can be used for both cold or finishing preparations as well as in cooking. Olive oil can be used in a variety of cooking styles, and light-tasting olive oil has a neutral flavor, so you can use it in cooking and baking when you don’t want the characteristic peppery taste of olive oil.

What Does It Mean for Olive Oil to Be “Extra-Virgin”?

Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil, extracted by grinding and pressing olives without chemicals or heat. Extra-virgin olive oil is darker than lower-quality oils, between a golden yellow and dark green. EVOO has a distinct olive flavor, and you can taste spiciness in the highest-quality oils.

“Don’t cook with the really expensive olive oil, with the flavorful olive oil, because olive oil, when it’s really cold-pressed and the first press, it has little particles in it, and they burn when you heat them up. So, use the good olive oil for salad, for your fish dish, or wherever you drizzle a little olive oil on it.”

— Chef Wolfgang Puck

Does the Color of the Bottle Matter?

The short answer is yes, the color of the bottle matters. Dark bottles help prevent oxidization by sunlight. If you can, purchase extra-virgin olive oil packaged in a dark glass bottle or tin. The best olive oils tend to come in glass bottles, but tins are the next best option—remember that aluminum can impact the flavor profile of the oil.

Paradoxically, some of the freshest olive oils come in clear glass bottles; these you should use as quickly as possible. Cheaper olive oils used for cooking should come in dark glass or tin packaging.

What to Look For on Olive Oil Labels

Here’s a comprehensive guide to decoding the labels on olive oil bottles:

Extra-virgin: You’re on the right track if the bottle claims to be extra-virgin. However, quality still varies within the extra-virgin category.

Harvest date: The harvest date indicates when the grower harvested the olives. Compare this date to the “best by” date. Ideally, the harvest date is within the same year as the “best by” date (and the year of purchase).

Country of origin: If buying olive oil in the United States, choosing a bottle from California is best. Look for a California Olive Oil Council seal, which guarantees that the oil meets taste and quality standards. Olive oil doesn’t travel well—a fact represented in the quality and flavor of imported bottles. Buy local if you can, and save the Italian olive oil for your next trip to Italy.

Process: Many bottles of olive oil will include “cold-pressed” on the label; however, this is redundant when applied to extra virgin oils. Extra-virgin olive oil must come from the first pressing with no added heat.

Flavor profile: Harvest time impacts flavor: Some oils made from still-green (unripe) olives can taste spicy and peppery. “It very often has a little kick in the back of your throat,” says Alice Waters. “And people think, ‘Oh, that’s not pleasant.’ But, in fact, for me, it fits, you know, on a piece of warm toast. It’s just like it sort of calms itself down. And you get a real flavor of just the olives.” Check the label for tasting notes if you can’t taste the oil yourself.

How to Buy Olive Oil

Here are some tips for discovering the best bottle of olive oil:

Shop at specialty stores rather than big-box grocery stores. Shop for olive oil at stores where the stock does not linger on the shelves for too long. “It’s hard to store olive oil in a cool place in a big market,” Alice Waters says. “I’m looking for a store that has a big turnover of olive oil in it—maybe more like a delicatessen where olive oil is something really valuable,” Alice says.

Shop small. “I encourage you to buy whatever you’re buying in terms of extra-virgin olive oil in as small a container as possible,” Chef Thomas Keller says. “This will help maintain the quality of the oil.”

Taste-test olive oils to find your favorite. The world is filled with tons of remarkable olive oils. Some have more peppery notes, and others are more fruity. With so many different types of olive oil to choose from, the best strategy for finding one you like is to taste them. Chef Waters recommends hosting an annual olive oil tasting party. “It will cut down on the cost when you taste in a group,” she says, “and it will help you learn together how to articulate what you’re tasting.” The bottom line is the best olive oil is the one you enjoy the most.

Buy organic olive oil. Chef Waters recommends looking for organic labeling (“biologico” in Italian) or confirming the farming practices with the grower or salesperson.

Select for freshness. Check for the calendar year printed on the bottle and use within one year of bottling.

Pick up two bottles. Lighter olive oils have a slightly high smoke point, making them ideal for cooking over high heat. In contrast, rich olive oils are more flavorful and have a better mouthfeel making them ideal for finishing a dish. “Sautéing in extra-virgin olive oil doesn’t really work,” Chef Thomas Keller says. “Heat is one of the big enemies of the quality of the oil and the flavor of the oil. So the more you heat the oil, the less flavor it has. . . . Our extra-virgin olive oils or our finishing oils are only for that purpose, to finish, to add flavor afterward.”

Store your oil correctly. “Oxidation will occur once you open the oil, and we wanna try to prevent any diminishing effects on the oil through oxidation through heat and through light,” Chef Thomas Keller says. “So keep it in a cool, dark place. And use it as quickly as possible. I can’t say that enough.”

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